For Immediate Release
Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Forest Service Chief Mum on Why He Imposed Gag Order
Agency Faces FOIA Lawsuit for Failing to Turn Over Documents
WASHINGTON - 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
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 For example, it superseded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
"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 "
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