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FOIA Front: Space agency on different planet with FOIA response?

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten

NASA put a man on the moon, but officials at the space agency can't seem to figure out what they told the White House or Congress about their spending on conferences.

Federal agency heads were ordered in May by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review all planned conference spending and to certify that they have policies in place to ensure they are being frugal with taxpayer dollars.

Their duty is to interpret the request in a way that promotes disclosure, not throwing up these hyper-technical barriers. - Michael Caramanica, FOI Director, Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press

They also were instructed to begin posting information about conference costs on their official web sites by Jan. 31, 2013.

That directive, and a similar one issued in September 2011, came in response to separate scandals involving lavish spending at conferences exposed by internal investigators at the Justice Department and the General Services Administration.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, also demanded detailed records of conference spending by agencies in April.

So knowing of those requests to NASA, The Washington Examiner submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request earlier this month seeking all documents the agency prepared in response to the OMB memos and the Issa letter.

The newspaper also requested databases or other documents showing agency spending on conferences over the past five years, information similar to what the agencies must begin posting on their web sites in January.

NASA officials responded that they are unable to process the request because they are not sure what documents the Examiner seeks.

"Based on the information provided in your request, it is unclear what records you are requesting," said Jeanne Yeager, a FOIA officer at NASA.

"Without more information regarding the specific type of documents you are requesting or the originator of those documents, we are unable to process your request," Yeager said.

The Examiner sent nearly identical requests to multiple federal agencies earlier this month. Six agencies have at least partially complied by providing databases or spreadsheets showing conference spending. NASA is the only agency to claim it doesn't understand the request.

Mark Caramanica, FOI director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called NASA's response "ridiculous." The newspaper's request is clear as to what documents are being sought, he said after reviewing the original FOIA letter and NASA's reply.

"NASA is taking a very hyper-technical approach," Caramanica said. "Their duty is to interpret the request in a way that promotes disclosure, not throwing up these hyper-technical barriers.

"It seems to me it's very easy to understand what you are looking for. I cannot believe that there isn't a file somewhere at NASA where they are keeping the records they sent to OMB."

Stay tuned, as the Examiner is appealing NASA's response.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team.

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