Last year, I wrote an article bitching and moaning about the U.S. State Department’s stonewalling response to my Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request for documents about a bar fight involving an embassy staffer outside Golden Sorya Mall. That incident was described as follows in the August 2014 edition of Bayon Pearnik magazine:
The Original Response to My FOIA Request
My article discussed that three years after I submitted my FOIA request, the State Department’s FOIA Hearing Officer sent me this rather shameful collection of completely whitewashed documents:
I argued in the article that the State Department’s refusal to provide me with any substantive information about the bar fight violated the department’s FOIA obligations and was quite shameful and hypocritical, in light of how our diplomats continually implore Cambodian authorities to adopt a culture of governmental transparency.
A few months after writing the article, I did what any perfectly sane person with way too much time on his hands would do. I appealed the State Department’s improper response to my FOIA request.
The gist of my 7 page appeal was: (1) there’s nothing private about an embassy staffer fighting in public, (2) no secret law enforcement techniques would be revealed by producing the incident report and photos, and (3) withholding these documents is inconsistent with our government’s regular practice of releasing information when our personnel misbehave, or are the victims of violent crime, in foreign lands.
My appeal was assigned to a FOIA appeals panel of three former U.S. ambassadors:
1. 90 year-old Francis Terry McNamara, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before joining the foreign service during President Eisenhower’s first term. He was serving as Consul General in Can Tho, Vietnam in April 1975 when he led a heroic evacuation down the Bassac River at the helm of a landing craft with 300 Vietnamese employees and members their families aboard. They were picked up by a passing freighter after making it to the South China Sea. McNamara later served as ambassador to Gabon and Cape Verde.
2. 77 year-old James F. Mack, an Ivy League graduate (OK, he went to Cornell, but still) and early Peace Corps volunteer who joined the foreign service in 1966 and was promptly posted to our embassy in Saigon working for Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. 31 years later Mack was named ambassador to Guyana.
3. 81 year-old William Ryerson, also a Cornell graduate, who joined the foreign service a few days after President Kennedy was sworn in and served in Berlin during Kennedy’s famous visit there. He became an expert on our relations with Eastern Europe, and in 1991 President Bush named him the first U.S. Ambassador to Albania since 1939.
That’s a pretty good panel of accomplished men. They are men of substance, men who devoted their lives to performing essential diplomatic work for the United States, advancing freedom and democracy in difficult and dangerous Cold War hotspots. And now, in their golden years, these three former ambassadors were tasked with reading and ruling on my whiny appeal begging for documents about a knucklehead embassy staffer getting his ass kicked in a bar fight on Street 51.
The Panel’s Response to My Appeal
I am pleased to report that this panel of very wise and super-old white dudes agreed with me and granted my FOIA appeal, for the most part. They released the Local Guard Force Incident Report, which explains that on July 25, 2014 at about 10:55 p.m., an embassy guard posted in at a residence in Boeung Keng Kang 1 encountered an embassy staffer with a serious head wound emitting heavy bloodshed. The staffer explained that “the bad guy hit him and his car at Pit Stop bar #48E0 on Street 51.” He was taken to SOS Clinic for treatment.
The panel also released three previously withheld pages of photos of the incident. Those photos (two of which are nearly identical) were sent to me as poor quality black and white copies on A4 paper. They appear to show a car with a completely smashed driver’s side window as well as damage to the windshield consistent with it having been hit by a can of Anchor or similar object.
Here are even poorer quality photos I just took of these black and white copies with my phone.
The panel decided to withhold the two remaining photos of the incident on the basis of “personal privacy.” I’m guessing these withheld photos show the embassy staffer and his bloody head.
The Bayon Pearnik column mentioned that when the pugilistic embassy staffer initially drove off, locals pelted his car with “stuff.” The photos of the broken window and windshield appear to confirm the veracity of Bayon Pearnik‘s report. The Bayon Pearnik account also mentioned that after the staffer left the scene in his car, embassy SUVs and a K-9 team showed up at the scene of the fight and caused half the customers of Golden Sorya Mall to depart. The Local Guard Force Incident Report does not mention this K-9 team response at all.
As I wrote in my original article:
Look, I’m not naive. I anticipated a bit of gamesmanship and obstruction in response to this FOIA request. I didn’t expect them to just offer up the name of the punchy staffer, or his medical records, or a photo of the ladyboy hookers he was probably sitting with, or anything like that. But I did expect that the State Department would otherwise act like responsible law-abiding grown ups and say “OK, one of our embassy guys was involved in an altercation in a public place, here’s our redacted report showing the date, time and location of the incident along with a general description of what happened and how this incident was totally not his fault.”
Ultimately, after four years, the State Department did the right thing, as I always expected them to do. They produced a brief, self-serving report of this incident stating that “the bad guy” attacked an embassy staffer and his car on Street 51.
I greatly appreciate that the law-abiding grown ups on the State Department’s appeals panel have a better understanding of the department’s obligations under the Freedom of Information Act than the buffoonish hearing officer who sent me the original obstructionist response.