Washington, DC — Contrary to administration vows of transparency, the U.S. Forest Service bars its law enforcement personnel from responding to media inquiries without headquarters approval, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This total clampdown prevents timely release of crime, fire and accident reports.
In a September 1, 2009 memo, David Ferrell, Director of Law Enforcement and Investigations (LEI) for the Forest Service, stated:
“Currently, and until further notice all LEI employees are on stand-down from communicating with local and or national media contacts without clearance from the Director, LEI and Press Office, Media desk in the Washington Office.”
National forest units contacted by a reporter must first file a 20-part “Forest Service Media Coordination Request” and await official approvals. As a practical matter this media “stand-down” means that several days are usually required to receive final authorization to respond to a press inquiry, no matter how simple or urgent. Agency documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act show reporters stonewalled on requests about fires, border crime, drug operations and accidents. Even matters previously considered routine, such as a request to profile a new District Ranger, require top-level sign-offs.
“On one hand, the Forest Service entrusts its law enforcement personnel to handle the risk-filled tasks of countering smugglers, drug lords and gangs but, on the other hand, does not trust them to field a single question from the local newspaper,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who acted on behalf of Forest Service law enforcement staff frustrated with the constraints of the current policy. “Media can be an invaluable asset to law enforcement, provided there is a genuine two-way street of communication.”
In August 2009, the Forest Service was embarrassed by media coverage of a law enforcement slide presentation listing “waning signs” of Mexican drug operations inside national forests, including “tortilla packaging” and Spanish music. Stung by charges of racial profiling, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell issued an agency-wide directive that any press inquiries on a “national issue” had to be vetted through Washington. David Ferrell, head of LEI, took the media policy one step further and forbade all unapproved interviews, replies, presentations, briefings, speeches or releases.
“The Forest Service has taken message control to the point of micromanaged madness,” Ruch added, noting the gulf between this “no comment” stance and the Obama administration’s promises of open government. “Open government means more than an unobstructed view of the official talking points.”
At the same time, the Obama administration continues to enforce many Bush-era gag orders and has continued prosecution of law enforcement whistleblowers targeted for removal by Bush, most notably former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers.
See how five recent reporter information requests were handled: