WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. government demanded six figures to produce data on foreign travelers and air traffic, at a time when scrutiny of these issues has come to boil, a journalist claims in a federal complaint
A tourism writer for a digital subsidiary of Atlantic Magazine, David Yanofsky says all of the statistics he seeks are related to his reporting on the hot topic of foreign travel and immigration to the United States.
Yanofsky’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act implicate “matters of public concern such as visa allocations, infrastructure at ports and border crossings, and strategies to ease the entry and exit process for visitors to and from the United States,” the May 19 complaint states.
San Francisco-based Yanofsky says he actually wrote one of the articles that has been generating a lot of interest as extraordinarily long lines at airport security checkpoints promise trouble for upcoming summer travelers.
“Wait ‘Til Summer,” read the headline of Yanofsky’s April 12 article for the online magazine Quartz, which quotes an American Airlines spokeswoman as saying “TSA is our No. 1 problem right now, and it’s only going to get worse.”
Yanofsky said his analysis of Homeland Security budget data revealed an unmistakable link between the long airport waits and the elimination of approximately 6,000 TSA screeners between 2011 and 2016.
Additional data on related phenomena is “central to public understanding” of the government’s foreign travel programs and airport check-in procedures, but Yanofsky says the government has been stonewalling his FOIA requests.
The Department denied Yanovsky’s initial request and two subsequent appeals for four years worth of data from the U.S. International Air Traveler Statistics Program and the Department of Homeland Security’s Visitors Arrival Program, according to the complaint.
Yanofsky says these two programs were created to provide air traffic data and stats on foreign visitors’ trips to the U.S. by country of residency, respectively.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has conceded that agency records are at issue, according to the complaint, but it has said he will need to purchase them through the agency’s National Travel and Tourism Office for $173,775.
Yanofsky quotes the denial letter as saying the “records which are published and offered for sale are excluded from the definition of [FOIA] records and need not be proactively disclosed even if doing so would be otherwise required.”
In an email about his lawsuit, Yanofsky called this rationale “astounding.”
He added that a representative for the International Trade Administration initially told him that the DOC bureau “did not want to release the records to [him] because it wanted to protect the revenue the data generated.”
The Commerce Department has not returned emails and phone calls seeking comment.
As quoted in the complaint, “the [agency’s] denial letter stated that the requested records were being ‘withheld under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(vi)’ — the Displacement Provision — and that 15 U.S.C § 1525 acts as a superseding fee statute with regard to the requested records.”
Yanofsky disputed this in two administrative appeal letters, claiming in his complaint that that provision “does not permit an agency to withhold records.”
His lawsuit seeks a court declaration stating that he is entitled access to the records he claims the DOC illegally withheld, as well as an order declaring that he was assessed improper fees for the data and is entitled to fee waiver status as a member of the news media.
Yanofsky is represented by Katie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a D.C.-based advocacy group offering free legal representation to journalists on constitutional matters.
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