The Military's Public Information Black Hole - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Christina Jedra

Christina Jedra is a journalist for Civil Beat focused on investigative and in-depth reporting. You can reach her by email at or follow her on Twitter at @christinajedra.

The military regularly fails to share what are supposed to be public records.

After some 1,300 gallons of concentrated firefighting chemicals leaked at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage complex in November, I wondered: Was this a one-time occurrence? Or has the military released this toxic foam – called AFFF – in Hawaii before? 

As a reporter for Civil Beat, I was able to confirm one prior release, in 2020, thanks to a whistleblower. But I wanted to know more. 

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Fortunately, the Department of Defense has been asking these same questions. In January 2020, the DOD ordered its branches to start collecting data on AFFF releases and spills, according to a defense department memo. The information was supposed to be compiled in a spreadsheet and reported every year in November, starting in 2020. 

Certainly, I thought, this should be easy enough for the Department of Defense to provide. 

Apparently not. 

“Your request has been placed in our complex processing queue and is being worked based on the order in which the request was received,” a DOD official responded to my Freedom of Information Act request. “Our current administrative workload is approximately 3,594 open requests.”

And with that, another one of my public information requests fell into the military’s black hole. 

Since I started reporting in Hawaii in 2019, I’ve filed numerous FOIA requests with the military, primarily the Navy. Time and again, I have filed one with the hopes of shining a light on an issue of public importance only to have it fizzle into nothingness. The Freedom of Information Act, which is supposed to provide the transparency needed for a healthy democracy, is too often a pathway to a dead end that leaves us in the dark on critical issues. 

This problem comes into sharp focus on the issue of Red Hill. I filed a number of requests regarding the World War II-era facility both before and after thousands of Pearl Harbor-area residents drank fuel-tainted water in 2021. But none of the Red Hill-related requests I’ve submitted to the military have been fulfilled. 

170103-N-NB544-018 SASEBO (Jan. 3, 2017) Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Zachary Holmes files administrative paperwork aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). . Bonhomme Richard, forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan, is serving forward to provide a rapid-response capability in the event of a regional contingency or natural disaster. (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom/Released)
In theory, many documents produced by the U.S. military are public records. But in practice, they’re hard to get your hands on. (U.S. Navy Photo)

On several occasions, the military just stopped responding to me, ghosting me like a bad date. 

In January 2020, I asked for copies of emails about Red Hill from the accounts of two high-ranking Navy officials, then-Capt. Marc Delao and Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick. Both Delao and Chadwick were leading the charge to keep Red Hill open for years to come. (“It’s decades old, but it’s in good shape,” Delao told me a year before some 20,000 gallons of fuel spewed from a Red Hill pipe.) 

A FOIA officer told me that the military had started pulling emails and redacting them. And then all communication stopped. I followed up several times, but I never heard from that person again. 

FOIAonline, a government-run FOIA processing and tracking website, shows those requests are still waiting to be assigned to someone. It’s been more than three years. Delao is now retired from the military, and Chadwick has moved on to lead a different tentacle of the Navy. 

The same thing happened with a request for a report on the Navy’s fuel needs. This “fuel needs assessment” might have shed light on whether the Navy truly relied on Red Hill for daily national security operations as officials claimed, or whether it was a reserve that could be taken offline and moved somewhere safer without much disruption. FOIAonline says this request was “due” to me in February 2020. I never received anything. 

The lack of response to those requests was frustrating at the time but stings all the more now that the Navy’s failures at the facility have upended so many people’s lives. What if those emails revealed that top Navy officials privately expressed safety concerns about Red Hill that they weren’t willing to reveal publicly? What if the fuel needs assessment showed the Navy was hanging onto Red Hill less for necessity and more as a point of pride in its history and engineering? We may never know.

And even if the Navy eventually does provide these records, what difference will it make? Transparency delayed is transparency denied. 

When it comes to FOIA delays, I’m not alone, according to Adam Marshall, a senior attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a First Amendment advocacy organization.

By law, government agencies are supposed to respond to FOIAs by certain deadlines, usually within 20 business days. Expedited requests are supposed to be processed even faster. But that rarely happens in practice, he said. Requests often languish for months or even years, he said, rendering the law almost useless for gleaning information about contemporary issues.

The only way to hold an agency accountable for blowing FOIA deadlines is to take them to federal court, Marshall said, and that takes time and money.

“FOIA is not functioning as Congress intended it to,” he said. “Its effectiveness as a tool for an informed democracy is significantly undermined. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Agencies could respond to FOIA requests faster with more staffing, better technology and more resources, Marshall said.

“But a lot of this also could be helped by leadership within the government,” he said. “If agency leadership makes clear that FOIA is a priority, that can have an effect.”

Asked for an interview, the Navy provided a statement from an unnamed spokesperson in the Pentagon who said the Navy “aims to maximize public access while protecting sensitive information, in accordance with applicable laws.”

In fiscal year 2022, the median number of days for a response to a complex request was 15 days, and the average was 101 days, that spokesman said.

But a response doesn’t necessarily mean records were provided in that time. It just means the Navy acknowledged the request. Certain topics, including Red Hill and PFAS contamination, are “flagged” as requiring review at the defense secretary level, the spokesman said, which “could result in delays.”

john wade and stephen barnett red hill press conference
Vice Adm. John Wade, who is overseeing Red Hill’s defueling, has repeatedly expressed his commitment to transparency. But he’s part of an institution with a reputation for secrecy.

Navy Vice Adm. John Wade, who is leading the Red Hill defueling effort, has repeatedly pledged to be transparent about Red Hill. 

“I have an obligation to listen to you, and I also will tell you what we’re doing and why, provide timelines and communicate as transparently as possible when things are good, but also when there are setbacks, either perceived or real,” he said in October

But Wade is only in charge of the defueling task force, not the entire Navy. And his words don’t match the DOD’s actions on public records. 

After fuel from Red Hill contaminated the Pearl Harbor area’s drinking water, I filed more FOIAs. 

One source told me that the Navy had asked some people to sign non-disclosure agreements in the immediate aftermath of the November 2021 fuel spill. In response to my FOIA, the Navy confirmed these agreements exist but won’t give them to me. 

I also asked for reports on any completed Inspector General investigations done in the last 20 years that pertain to Red Hill. Again, the Navy located the files I want but won’t share them. 

Both of these requests went into a special pile of FOIA requests that the Pentagon has designated as warranting “FOIA litigation coordination,” a legal review process amid lawsuits filed by families who were sickened by fuel contamination. The records I requested are supposed to be posted to the Navy’s FOIA reading room at some point, but no one has given me a timeline for that. 

In another request, I asked for an evaluation of the Navy’s fuel assets in Hawaii done by the Naval Supply Systems Command, or NAVSUP. With the help of a source, I was able to obtain a summary of the report’s alarming findings, which I wrote about, but I wanted to see the whole thing. Nearly a year later, the request is still waiting to be assigned, according to FOIAonline. 

Some of the DOD’s decisions border on the absurd. The DOD still hasn’t officially released a video of fuel spewing from a Red Hill pipeline in November 2021 even though Civil Beat independently obtained the footage and published it last July. Without information flowing through official channels, the public often relies on the bravery of individual sources to come forward at their own risk to share material that should be public. 

The DOD’s record of non-disclosure is not limited to Red Hill. In 2019, I tried to get information on child sex abuse cases prosecuted through the military justice system, which doesn’t make case records accessible in the way civilian court systems do. 

I asked for case records pertaining to 20 specific service members who were found guilty at court-martial in Pearl Harbor and whose names I found in an online case summary.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act is a law ensuring public access to U.S. government records. Joint Task Force Guantanamo makes every effort to provide access to documents in accordance with the FOIA act to maintain transparency of operations. JTF Guantanamo conducts safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detainees, including those convicted by military commission and those ordered released by a court. The JTF conducts intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination for the protection of detainees and personnel working in JTF Guantanamo facilities and in support of the War on Terror. JTF Guantanamo provides support to the Office of Military Commissions, to law enforcement and to war crimes investigations. The JTF conducts planning for and, on order, responds to Caribbean mass migration operations.
The U.S. Freedom of Information Act is a law designed to ensure public access to U.S. government records. (Courtesy: U.S. Department of Defense)

The Office of the Judge Advocate General never provided the records and stopped responding to my messages. 

The military could make its records more accessible by posting them in real time on an online portal like the federal court service Pacer, but it has not done so.

A 2016 law passed by Congress was designed to give the public “timely” access to military justice records. But the Biden administration recently issued guidance to the service branches that gives them the OK to continue limiting access, ProPublica reported this month.

In my recent FOIA request for AFFF spill data, I asked the military to put me on an expedited processing track because I’m a member of the media who is seeking the information in the public interest. That request was denied. But I’ve asked the FOIA officer to reconsider. 

In a Jan. 27 email, I told him about Honolulu’s drinking water contamination crisis and how thousands of military families, including children, were sickened by fuel. I told him about the AFFF leak and how that foam contains chemicals that don’t break down in the environment and are associated with serious health impacts, from low birth weight to cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I noted that the EPA said last year that PFAS are more dangerous than previously thought

I told the FOIA officer that it’s essential that the public be informed about the full scope of PFAS contamination in Hawaii. If the community and regulators are left in the dark, the chemicals may not be remediated from the soil and water, which could threaten public health. I told him that’s unacceptable, especially in the context of the contamination crisis we’re already facing. 

I pointed out that the Department of Defense itself has recognized the seriousness of PFAS contamination, which is why it began requiring reports of military PFAS releases starting in 2020. And that information should be public. 

“It’s critically important that Hawaii residents learn about where these chemicals are so that they can ensure they are cleaned up and that our communities are safe,” I wrote. 

The Freedom of Information Division has not responded.

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About the Author

Christina Jedra

Christina Jedra is a journalist for Civil Beat focused on investigative and in-depth reporting. You can reach her by email at or follow her on Twitter at @christinajedra.

Latest Comments (0)

The government too, like our politicians, know how to make excuses in prolonging the truth from being heard.

kealoha1938 · 9 months ago

I guess a lawsuit is the only way to move up in the ridiculous military que?? Certainly would get their attention. Or not???I think it’s safe to say that Hawaiian leaders OWE the public this information and should join your suit.Time is of the essence when it comes to deadly chemical exposure, especially for the keiki!!!Hawai’i is not alone with toxic military contamination. Surely there is some kind of network of FOI seekers regarding military perpetrators. If Hawaii’s congressional Reps and Senators are ‘too shy" to make a ruckus nationally, perhaps someone with actual kahones (Bernie?) will include Hawai’i in their agenda? There are so many loudmouth idiots in the House right now. Perhaps this is the necessary mode of communication in DC right now?Fire away! It’s good journalism that is often the the catalyst for change. Watergate & The Pentagon Papers. The lying NSA and whistleblowers. Godspeed!

Mauna2Moana · 9 months ago

Civil Beat + Ernie Lau (and his team) - fighting for us for so many years against this obstructionist Goliath. Reading the quotes from these older stories would be funny if the situation wasn't such a serious threat to our way of life.I think a key member of the Hawaii legislature that could have influenced the situation has also left office. Even if they were still around, I'm guessing "I told you so" won't provide much satisfaction to our defenders. I just hope our current congressional delegation and local leaders have woken up to make sure we don't look back on their involvement and efforts with the same tragic sense of historical irony.

BeaterReader · 9 months ago

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