09 October 2011

VA Deceives C-123 Veterans in FOIA Response

Another interesting day. It began with receiving an FOIA response from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In May, I had requested all materials known to the Secretary's office regarding the Tom Philpott article about us...that reporter revealed the toxicity of the C-123K and the problems we've had bringing it to the attention of senior AF and VA officials.

Here's the principal issue: Tom was promised responses to inquiries he made to HQ USAF and the VA. In the case of the VA, he spoke with Mr. Josh Taylor's associate Mr. Steve Westerfield, who promised Philpott (as reported at the end of the article) that the VA would carefully look into the issue. We've never had a response from Taylor so I asked for their info via FOIA. Now, over five months having past, the VA's Ms. Gwendolyn Smith ("Alternate FOIA Officer" for the VA) tells us:
This office queried a number of business lines pertaining to your request. The records containing this information are not located in our office.
Here is the language of my May request:
2. Copies of emails, memos, marginal notations or documents and any other materials prepared or received by Mr. Josh Taylor concerning Agent Orange contamination of C-123K aircraft.
So how could this happen, especially after national publication of our story, after emails floating back and forth between us and the VA, GSA and DOD, after IG complaints and all the other turmoil? How could the VA response to my FOIA come back boldly stating "No Records Found"? 

Easy. Two possibilities. First, perhaps they lied and falsified their FOIA response. Or second (and more likely) perhaps they used carefully crafted and misleading language to avoid the request. Here's how: Since there is absolutely no way that Mr. Josh Taylor didn't have at least some of the materials requested in my FOIA, the only way to avoid releasing them is to factually state, as above, that the "records containing this information are not located in our office." They don't say the records don't exist...they simply say the records are not in their office...the FOIA office. They say nothing about Mr. Taylor's office, or any other place the materials might reside. This is an example of what Air Force Academy cadets, in their Honor Code Handbook, are taught amounts to PREVARICATION...QUIBBLING! Using half-truths to form a lie by sliding around the margins of truth!

The VA didn't even acknowledge the 320-page binder we sent the Secretary, containing the Air Force test results, consultant reports, emails within AFMC, etc. This also should have been part of their FOIA response. (Oct 26 note: the VA has released Mr. Philpott's email to the VA seeking comment - and for some reason, a press release about the Blue Water Navy.)

Taylor, whose representative personally spoke with Mr. Tom Philpott during the preparation of the Gannett newspaper chain article which appeared in dozens of newspapers nationwide, must have logged their conversation, perhaps made notes during the interview, perhaps reported to his supervisors, perhaps (dare we hope?) actually done what he promised and what he is paid to do..."to carefully look into the issue". 

I am amazed that the VA and all our fellow citizens expect military officers to be bound by our inflexible code of honor but don't seem have one themselves. Our military code which, if not already part of our personal character, is spelled out in detail in the UCMJ as well as in two centuries of military tradition. Look at Mr. Taylor's promise to look carefully into the issue, and his failure to do so...perhaps, his decision even as the words were spoken to AVOID doing so. Honorable? 

In the military, an officer stating in the national press that he would do something would result in that something getting done, or the officer is in grave trouble. We call it honor. Sadly, in the VA, no such standard of honor seems to exist which would interest Public Relations wonks to actually do what they promise. Even if they are government employees assigned to do so. Even if, as with Mr. Taylor and Mr. Westerfield, it is their job to provide the truth to the press so that the press can properly exercise its constitutional duties. 

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