It apparently is a lot easier to learn about how the NSA is spying on our phone and Internet communications than it is to get details about all the letter-carriers in Seattle bitten by dogs. But then again, whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden never worked for the U.S. Postal Service.
This morning, I received a letter from the post office’s Washington headquarters offering “deepest apologies” for its inability to correctly process my simple, four-month-old request for incident reports concerning the 42 letter-carriers unfortunate enough to be chomped by dogs in canine-loving Seattle. “We very much regret the delays you have experienced,” wrote Christopher T. Klepac, Chief Counsel, Federal Requirements. He added that the paperwork would be forwarded to me “as soon as possible.”
As it happened, his letter arrived on the very same day the USPS, whose stations sometimes run out of stamps, proposed raising first-class postage from 46 cents to 49 cents. You know, I can’t make up this stuff.
Putting aside the issue of why prying loose animal-bite reports should be so difficult, you might wonder why a top legal gun for the Postal Service sent me such an acquiescent response–certified-mail-return-receipt-requested, no less. Therein lies a lesson definitely worth teaching to the citizenry.
In mid-May, the Postal Service itself drew attention to this epidemic of assault upon a valued segment of the federal work force by issuing a press release headed “Top dog-attack city rankings.” The statement said Seattle postal workers last year got bitten more often by dogs than any other city in the country except Los Angeles. The City of Angels is where couriers attempting the swift completion of their appointed rounds were delayed by 69 bites.
At the time I wrote about the Postal Service statement. (For me, New To Seattle, local dogs are a fertile source of commentary material; see here and here.) That prompted one reader of this blog from my Magnolia neighborhood, noting the way his letter-carriers often handed out dog treats, to post, “I am very skeptical of the survey.” So I decided to get to the bottom of things.
Accordingly, on May 15, I faxed a one-page request to the Postal Service’s Freedom of Information Act office in the Other Washington. After referencing that press release, I asked for “reports or other paperwork for each of the 42 episodes that explains the circumstances, including, but not limited to, location, precipitating events and resulting severity.” To get around privacy concerns, I requested that victim names and other personally identifiable data like Social Security numbers be blacked out.
The first problem arose when the FOIA Office, acknowledging my request, got my address wrong, substituting the name of a nonexistent street in Seattle. I’ll let you ponder the delicious irony of this. Fortunately, as I later wrote the FOIA Office asking that my address be fixed on its official FOIA records–in retrospect, maybe a little too gleefully–“your alert staff on the ground in Seattle was able to correctly deliver the letter, for which I am grateful.”
Spring became summer, and the FOIA’s statutory time limit for compliance or explicit denial came and went. On July 5, I contacted the FOIA office by telephone to inquire about the status of what I thought was a pretty easy matter. I was told my request had been sent to a Postal Service consumer affairs office in the Seattle suburb of Milton, but that the 42 reports had been located. I spoke with someone in Milton who on July 8 actually followed up with an email to me saying that office was in the “process of addressing” my request.
And then? Silence. Zip. Nada. A follow-up email by me to the Milton office on August 20 went unanswered. There have been shorter papal reigns.
Now, as a journalist I have a lot of experience using the FOIA. Over four decades I have filed hundreds of requests for such files as FBI records about actor Rock Hudson, artist Georgia O’Keeffe, poet John Ciardi, lefty baseball writer Lester Rodney, and the TV crime show “The Untouchables,” as well as Securities and Exchange Commission records about Apple founder Steve Jobs and fugitive financial Robert Vesco. The FOIA does contain a number of exemptions protecting such concerns as ongoing law enforcement investigations, national security and privacy for living persons.
But not for living dogs.
The FOIA provides a process by which an administrative appeal can be filed within the agency queried but usually to a higher-up or the legal department, where more reasonable or politically attuned heads may prevail. On occasion I have found it useful to describe in administrative appeal letters the adverse publicity fallout that might result from a lawless denial. So on August 28, I faxed my two-page appeal to the USPS General Counsel’s office. To wit:
The notion that it takes months and I actually have to draft and file an appeal to get something so mundane as dog bite records certainly has the potential to produce another Drudge Report-style public-relations black eye for the USPS. I ask you to exercise your appeal authority, overturn the constructive denial of my FOIA request and send me the requested documents soon.
Voila! A few weeks later–after summer became fall–I received Klepac’s letter of apology and promise to do better. In the world of FOIA appeals this is lightning fast; it sometimes has taken me years to gain redress. I’ll take Klepac at his word. For the time being, anyway; I haven’t seen yet any of the asked-for paperwork.
Snowden, are you still holed up in Moscow?