Yawning Bread. September 2007

Fun with FOI




"I've never heard of such a thing as a Freedom of Information Act," she said to me. "What is it for?"

For a while, I didn't know how to begin answering her.

But it's not her fault, really. When you think of it, not only do we not have such a statute in Singapore, I have never even known our mainstream media to mention such a thing when reporting news from abroad. It's like some big taboo. We mustn't plant such ideas into our pristine citizens' heads lest pesky citizens start acting above their station in life and demand answers from the ruling elite!

Abroad, news involving Freedom of Information (FOI) processes come up quite regularly. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald recently had a story about the University of New South Wales refusing to answer an FOI question.

28 August 2007
Sydney Morning Herald

Uni used Singapore laws to stop FOI bid
By Harriet Alexander

The University of NSW has used the secrecy laws of an authoritarian foreign regime to justify its decision not to release documents under freedom-of-information laws.

The university quoted the Official Secrets Act of Singapore in its refusal to release information about its failed UNSW Asia campus, which collapsed in June, stranding nearly 150 students and costing the university millions in compensation and lost revenue.

The university's freedom-of-information officer refused to release correspondence between the vice-chancellor, Fred Hilmer, and Singapore's Economic Development Board partly because it "may fall within the scope of the Official Secrets Act", a draconian piece of legislation that has been used to prosecute journalists, government officials and economists.

"Section 5 of the OSA makes it clear that disclosure of communications entrusted by a person holding office under the government to any person other than the person that is entrusted in confidence or authorised by the person holding office under the government will be guilty of an offence," the university's letter to the Herald said.

"In effect, the Singapore [Official Secrets Act] reinforces that the communications between UNSW and the Singapore EDB are confidential material and release of that material would result in disclosure of confidential communications made between UNSW and the Singapore EDB."

A spokeswoman said yesterday that the university was not relying on the Official Secrets Act in declining to release the documents, but indicating the degree of confidentiality the Singapore Government attached to them.


(The last paragraph is a bit of a non-sequitur, but never mind.)

I believe the Herald was trying to do an in-depth story about the UNSW fiasco in Singapore and wanted access to information from a public body, which the UNSW is. The FOI Act provides an avenue for obtaining such information.

Singaporeans too have been clamouring for a detailed accounting of this debacle, and have been rather miffed that the Economic Development Board has been extremely reluctant to provide details. Even the amount of financial aid extended to the UNSW had to be dragged out of them by a team of horses. We still do not know what the terms of the loans and grants were, and thus the chances of recovery.

If only we had our own Freedom of Information Act.

Coming back the young woman's question -- "What is it for?" -- let me give two more examples of an FOI in use.

US military and intelligence agencies short of Arabic specialists

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda, an independent commission was set up to investigate what failings, if any, compromised the US' ability to anticipate future threats. Among its findings, the report said the government "lacked sufficient translators proficient in Arabic and other key languages."

Intelligence material could not be assessed in a timely manner because there weren't enough people to translate them.

Based on anecdotal reports of the US military discharging specialists who were fluent in Arabic on the basis that they were gay, the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military sought details from the US Department of Defence under the FOI.

As reported by the Associated Press on 13 January 2005, the government finally admitted that between 1998 and 2004, they discharged 20 Arabic and 6 Farsi speakers because of their sexual orientation. This was 3 times more than the figure initially provided by the Department when it tried to play down the issue; the Department had said they only knew of 7 cases.

It is not clear what the total numbers of Arabic and Farsi speakers are, but these are not popular languages in America, so it must be hard to recruit people with these skills. Even one man short is a handicap in a national emergency.

"The military is placing homophobia well ahead of national security," said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit group which advocates for the rights of gay military members. "It's rather appalling that in the weeks leading up to 9/11 messages were coming in, waiting to be translated ... and at the same time they were firing people who could've done that job."

Associated Press wrote about one such serviceman who was let go. Ian Finkenbinder, a U.S. Army Arabic linguist who graduated from the Defense Language Institute in 2002, was discharged from the military late 2004 after revealing to his superiors that he was gay. Finkenbinder, who said his close friends in the Army had long known about his sexual orientation, served eight months in Iraq and was about to return for a second tour when he made the revelation official.

"I looked at myself and said, 'Are you willing to go to war with an institution that won't recognise that you have the right to live as you want to?'" said Finkenbinder, 22. "It just got to be tiresome to deal with that -- to constantly have such a significant part of your life under scrutiny."

Finkenbinder said his commander was upset to be forced to let him go because his Arabic proficiency was at the highest possible for a non-native speaker.

As this story shows, the FOI can be used by concerned citizens and civil society as an instrument to make the government reexamine its actions.

The 'gay bomb'

A much sillier thing was unearthed this year by another FOI request, although by the time it came to light, it was of historical interest.

On 8 June 2007, CBS Broadcasting reported that Sunshine Project, a watchdog organisation that tracks military spending, uncovered a strange US military proposal to create a new non-lethal bomb. So far, so good, except that the plan was for a bomb to disperse hormones and aphrodisiacs that could purportedly turn enemy soldiers gay and make them more interested in sex than fighting.

What the heterosexual officers in the USAF saw in their dreams


Sunshine's Edward Hammond had used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of this "gay bomb" proposal from the Air Force's Wright Laboratory in Ohio.

CBS obtained confirmation from the Pentagon that this was true. Such a proposal had been received in 1994, but they said it was dropped immediately.

Disagreeing, Hammond said the government records he obtained suggested that the military gave the plan much stronger consideration than it has acknowledged. "The truth of the matter is it would have never come to my attention if it was dismissed at the time it was proposed," he said. "In fact, the Pentagon has used it repeatedly and subsequently in an effort to promote non-lethal weapons, and in fact they submitted it to the highest scientific review body in the country for them to consider."

The documents show the Air Force lab asked for US$7.5 million to develop such a chemical weapon. "The Ohio Air Force lab proposed that a bomb be developed that contained a chemical that would cause enemy soldiers to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistibly attractive to one another," Hammond said after reviewing the documents.

Most people would consider the project laughable -- you don't become gay just because you've been sprayed with some, as yet unidentified, hormones but, at least for a while, the Pentagon seemed to have given it serious consideration.

How many more such wild-eyed and wasteful projects brew away within government? That's why it's good to have a Freedom of Information Act. Skeletons in the government's closets must be swept out and the powerful held to account.

Yawning Bread 


More bad press for Singapore

As you can see from the Sydney Morning Herald story, with UNSW citing Singapore's Official Secrets Act, Australians have been treated to a piece that puts the spotlight on Singapore. Ours is described as an "authoritarian" regime, our Official Secrets Act a "draconian piece of legislation that has been used to prosecute journalists, government officials and economists."

Actually, every country has something equivalent to an Official Secrets Act, but since Singapore's reputation is already so bad, reporters might as well throw "draconian" in for good measure.

What is really at issue though, is why the correspondence must be marked "secret" in the first place. Even if there was justification at the outset, surely now with the collapse of the venture, wouldn't the public interest be better served by disclosure than stonewalling?

What good does it do to Singapore's reputation if Australians start to perceive that our government's secretiveness frustrates their own democratic right to information? That our behaviour damages Australian freedom?