As agencies increase their efforts to make information available to the public affirmatively, they find that they can serve the interests of the public through the proactive release of information likely to be of widespread interest and at the same time ease their own administrative processing burdens by reducing the need for requests to be made under the Freedom of Information Act.
One example of an agency that has an extensive affirmative disclosure program is the Department of the Air Force, which has two organizations at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated to compiling and making records publicly available. The Air Force Historical Research Agency maintains a collection of over seventy million pages that document the history of military aviation. The Secretary of the Air Force Gulf War Declassification Team initially disclosed records concerning Gulf War illness, and has, since 1995, focused its efforts on all remaining Gulf War records.
Over the years these organizations have provided information regarding military aviation in general, and the United States Air Force in particular, to Congress, to the military services and other agencies, as well as to scholars, writers, and interested members of the public.
The Air Force Historical Research Agency affirmatively makes the vast majority of its paper records available to the public for inspection and copying at Maxwell Air Force Base, where the collection is maintained. In order to further facilitate access, the agency has also copied the collection onto 16mm microfilm that can be purchased by any member of the public. The major portion of its collection consists of histories of the various Air Force organizations that have existed since the establishment of the Air Force History Program in 1942. These "unit histories" are complemented by special collections, including historical monographs and oral histories, end-of-tour reports, personal papers of retired general officers and other Air Force personnel, reference materials on early military aviation, course materials of the Air Corps Tactical School of the 1920's and 1930's, and working documents of various joint and combined military commands. The collection also contains documents from other military organizations, including the United States Department of the Army, the British Air Ministry and the German Air Force.
The Secretary of the Air Force Gulf War Declassification Team systematically reviews Gulf War records for public disclosure. Using the FOIA's exemptions as its guide, the Team processes the records prior to making them publicly available, excising information where appropriate to protect, for example, personal privacy or classified data. The Team then opens the material to the public without waiting for specific FOIA requests.
As part of its efforts to broadly disseminate information of interest to the public, the Gulf War Team has made information available in two electronic formats--text and image files. The Gulf War Collection primarily contains unit histories, special studies, and message traffic, as well as observations, after-action reports, and other data from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It is the largest single collection of electronic records on aerial combat that has ever been compiled--over one million pages have been scanned into electronic images. The collection includes raw electronic data compiled by the agency such as electronic reports and messages from Gulf War operations, as well as electronic imagery from slides, videos, and photographs. (The Team's Gulf War illness-related records can be found at www.gulflink.osd.mil.)
The disclosure system established by the Gulf War Declassification Team is an excellent example of how an agency can make use of electronic information technology to facilitate ready access to information of interest to the public. Through their affirmative disclosure practices, the Gulf War Declassification Team and the Air Force Historical Research Agency efficiently meet the public demand for information without unnecessarily encumbering their FOIA processes.
This issue of FOIA Update contains a new regular feature, "Web Site Watch," that examines the development of agency World Wide Web sites for FOIA purposes.
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