FOIA Update: Space Agency Observes a "Mandate" for Openness

January 1, 1981

FOIA Update
Vol. II, No. 2
1981


Space Agency Observes a "Mandate" for Openness

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which came full blown into the family of federal agencies in 1958, has a mandate for openness.

This mandate is accepted seriously at NASA where pride is taken in the high marks earned yearly in the informal poll taken by Washington correspondents, in the information center with its racks of shiny publications, in the space mobile which visits thousands of schools yearly, and in a management bias "to level with the press."

When NASA was established as the successor agency to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, a World War I research agency, Congress and President Eisenhower made a conscious decision to put the country's burgeoning space program into the hands of a civilian organization and to make information about the program public.

Section 203(a)(3) of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 directs the space agency to carry out the purpose of the act--peaceful exploration of space--by the "widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results . . . ."

"This was to be in contrast to the way things were being done in the Soviet Union with its space program . . . they announced a success, but the failures were never heard about. Our program was to be different," so explains a senior NASA official, Gerald J. Mossinghoff, deputy general counsel.

The 1958 act also includes a provision which Mossinghoff characterizes as a "mini" FOIA. It mandates disclosure of "information obtained or developed by the administrator in performance of his functions . . . ."

Similar to the Freedom of Information Act, the open disclosure provision also allowed exemption of material protected by other federal law and national security material.

In line with the law is a policy of providing a great deal of material for use in classrooms and in the form of booklets and pamphlets which the press and the public can read or acquire at NASA information centers. Carolyn A. Schmidt at headquarters operates one of 13 such centers.

Mossinghoff and other NASA officials believe that the "open agency" policy has cut down on the number of FOIA requests because "people can get what they want without resorting to FOIA." Mossinghoff and Robert F. Allnutt, deputy associate administrator, both point out that there are correspondingly few FOIA turndowns--268 for the calendar year 1979.

Of the 268, 162 were Exemption Four denials. Mossinghoft says, "We take a totally hard line on (b)(4) . . . we feel proprietary information should be withheld . . . ."

FOIA requests which come to the agency are handled in a decentralized fashion. Each of the field installations handles requests directed to it, and each director or the head of the public affairs office--but not the program officer--makes his or her initial determination as to whether to release.

Most appeals come to Allnutt, who chuckles and says, "We don't have much traffic . . . ."

In 13 years, NASA has been sued five times in connection with administration of the Freedom of Information Act and its only loss resulted in an injunction to withhold pricing data in a reverse Freedom of Information Act case in which the agency had been advised by Justice to release. (See FOIA Counselor, page 6)

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