Washington, DC — The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service is wrongfully withholding documents explaining why he imposed a “gag order” forbidding all staff from responding to media inquiries without headquarters approval, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The policy prevents timely release of crime, fire and accident reports, as well as adding weeks to the response time for even routine reporter inquiries.
On August 25, 2009, Thomas L. Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, issued an order to his leadership directorate concerning “National Media Contacts” in which he forbade any employee from responding to “a member of the national media on any subject; or…a local or regional reporter seeking information about a national issue, including policy and budget issues” without prior clearance from the National Press Office (emphasis in original). In this memo, Chief Tidwell also stated that “I have received disturbing information concerning contacts by some employees with national media, without coordination” and cited the need for “consistent and coordinated messaging.”
On February 16, 2010, PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Service asking for all documents reflecting the rationale or circumstances leading up to the issuance of the gag order. On April 26, 2010, the agency declared that other than the Chief’s memo itself it had no further documents that could shed light on why it was issued.
“This memo was not the product of immaculate conception, springing fully formed from the Chief’s forehead,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that as a result of the memo national forest units contacted by a reporter must first file a 20-part “Forest Service Media Coordination Request” and await official approvals before responding to inquiries. “This order prevents Forest Service law enforcement from doing their job in cases where media cooperation can be a major asset.”
While the Forest Service claims that Chief Tidwell’s memo simply reaffirmed pre-existing policy, the memo goes much further. For example, it superseded provisions in the agency’s Law Enforcement Handbook that “Responses to requests for background information from the national news media should be provided…and do not require U.S. Department of Agriculture, Press Office approval.” More significantly, the handbook also provided that law enforcement personnel “may provide factual information to the media” concerning “emergency or fast-moving situations” such as accidents or crimes.
“President Obama promised a new level of transparency but on any issue of potential controversy, the same old penchant for secrecy still controls,” said PEER Counsel Christine Erickson, who drafted the complaint filed today in federal district court in Washington, D.C., noting the irony of official obfuscation over the basis for its public communication policy. “In order to get Freedom of Information Act compliance under this administration, we have had to file on average a new lawsuit every month “