Having grown up in the D.C. area, I was always curious about how often foreign diplomats get pulled over for breaking our local laws. With their distinctive blue and red license plates, they’re everywhere in the nation’s capital. If you live here for very long, you quickly learn about “diplomatic immunity.” But as I discovered, those tags not only keep them out of jail, they also protected them from public scrutiny.
As part of my job as an investigative reporter, I typically send off one or two Freedom of Information Act requests a week. Under federal and state law, anyone is allowed to review and get copies of documents created by our government. This is a critical component to what I do, getting access to documents that show how our government really operates.
In August 2008, I filed a FOIA with the U.S. Department of State asking for “A list of driving violations and/or accident reports submitted to the Diplomatic Motor Vehicle’s Office from January 1, 2003, until the present day.” The State Department acts as the “DMV” for diplomats, issuing their driver’s licenses, registration and tags. I had heard it also issued points to diplomats caught breaking our laws. I wanted to know if this was true and how often it happened.
Under the law, you’re supposed to get a response within 20 days. But any reporter will tell you it never arrives that quickly. Instead, I thought I would get something back in six months to a year, typical for other federal agencies I had worked with in the past.
After the first year went by, I called periodically to check in on my FOIA. I updated my address. I asked where I was in the process. Each time I got a different person on the phone who would type in my tracking number and then go “Huh. How about that?” And I would ask, “What?” And they would tell me they couldn’t tell me, but they “had gathered my documents” and they were “being reviewed.” Finally, after several years, a really nice guy told me, “It looks like it’s being held up for diplomatic reasons,” and he said I should be prepared to get nothing back.
That’s when I knew I really, really wanted whatever it was they had.
That’s also around the time I stopped getting any more information about my request. In early 2014 they just stopped picking up the phone entirely. Not because of me. They just never pick up the phone when you call the State Department’s FOIA number. In May, I sat on hold for more than an hour hoping someone would simply say, “Hello.”
It was a Friday. There’s a group of reporters who give out advice on Twitter about how to FOIA and use the hashtag #FOIAFriday. I rarely tweet out how I do stories but as I sat there I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous. I can’t even get anyone on the phone anymore.”
So I started tweeting about it – adding @StateDept to some of my tweets.
Three weeks later a large envelope arrived on my desk with a treasure trove of information.
But it was incomplete. I didn’t know where they got pulled over, how fast they were going, how drunk they were or even their first names and what they did for their embassies.
When you get pulled over for drunk or reckless driving, you get a ticket. So I gave our local police departments the names and dates I had and asked them for the tickets. That’s when I was told, under local FOIA laws, police departments in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. are not allowed to hand out tickets because of the “privacy exemption.”
But I got them anyway. It was just a lot more work.
I spent the next several weeks visiting every courthouse in our area and typing each diplomat’s name I had into court databases. I’ve since learned some of our local court systems are incredibly difficult to navigate. I had to physically go to the Fairfax County Courthouse five separate times and the county’s archive building in Springfield three different times to get their tickets. Loudoun needed more than a week to send me a single ticket. D.C. had the best system, where you could pull up digital copies of everything related to the case on their in-house computers, but don’t forget to bring your own stack of paper if you want copies.
At the same time, I started a formal appeals process with the State Department over what it withheld. I don’t know what I didn’t get, State wouldn’t tell me, but I know I didn’t get something that’s important because State used the “Foreign Relations” exemption outlined in Executive Order 13526. As Tom Blanton at the National Security Archive told me, “It’s supposed to protect Homeland Security, that exemption. Instead it’s covering up for some diplomats.”
State also only sent me records from the end of 2002 until 2010 – meaning my records were at least four years old. I regret typing two words on that August day in 2008. Instead of writing “until the present day” in my FOIA, I now always write “until the day this FOIA is processed.” State argued it only needed to provide records until the day I sent my FOIA and no further, even though it later admitted it waited at least three years before it even started to pull records.
A formal appeal is a heavy-duty document. You can see what I wrote here: FOIA Appeal Letter.
But it seems to have worked. I received a letter in September that a panel made up of three ambassadors determined I should receive more up-to-date records. I now have a special phone number to call where they actually pick up the phone and call you back. I don’t have the documents yet – but I’ll get them. And when I do, I’ll tell you what I found.