Freedom of Information in the Time of COVID-19

In principle, the COVID-19 outbreak could provide a compelling new justification for expediting the processing of certain Freedom of Information Act requests related to the pandemic. But it is more likely to slow down the handling of most requests as agency employees work remotely and other concerns are understandably prioritized.

The impact of COVID-19 was surveyed by the Congressional Research Service in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Processing Changes Due to COVID-19: In Brief, March 27, 2020.

Other noteworthy new and updated reports from CRS include:

U.S. Role in the World: Background and Issues for Congress, updated March 27, 2020

The Employment-Based Immigration Backlog, March 26, 2020

Demographic and Social Characteristics of Persons in Poverty: 2018, March 26, 2020

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) and COVID-19, March 26, 2020

Arms Control and Nonproliferation: A Catalog of Treaties and Agreements, updated March 26, 2020

Congressional Use of Advisory Commissions Following Crises, CRS In Focus, March 25, 2020

Policy Impacts of COVID-19 (CRS)

New resources from the Congressional Research Service add some depth to current news reporting on how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting — and being addressed by — US policy.

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COVID-19: Cybercrime Opportunities and Law Enforcement Response

“Officials have reported criminals using public interest in COVID-19 to their advantage. For instance, the Department of Justice (DOJ) cites “reports of individuals and businesses selling fake cures for COVID-19 online and engaging in other forms of fraud, reports of phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and reports of malware being inserted onto mobile apps designed to track the spread of the virus.”

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COVID-19 and Passenger Airline Travel

“Curtailing infectious disease spread through airline travel is challenging, in part because the passenger airline system in the United States is highly concentrated around 30 large hub airports, with tens of thousands of passengers passing through each of these airports every day.

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Federal Reserve: Recent Actions in Response to COVID-19

“The Federal Reserve has taken a number of steps to promote economic and financial stability involving the Fed’s monetary policy and “lender of last resort” roles. Some of these actions are intended to stimulate economic activity by reducing interest rates and others are intended to provide liquidity to financial markets so that firms have access to needed funding.”

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Federal Assistance to Troubled Industries: Selected Examples

“This report examines selected past instances in which the government has aided troubled industries, providing information about the way in which such assistance was structured, the role of Congress, and the eventual cost.”

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COVID-19 and Direct Payments to Individuals: Historical Precedents

“There are historical precedents for such payments; most of these were done through the federal income tax code. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sent checks to taxpayers in 1975, 2001, and 2008.”

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Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Poses Challenges for the U.S. Blood Supply

“Immediate risk of blood supply collapse due to the COVID-19 outbreak is currently limited to the Pacific Northwest. However, blood drives may potentially be cancelled in other areas of the country as containment and mitigation strategies increase, which may lead to blood supply shortages in additional areas.”

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COVID-19: Current Travel Restrictions and Quarantine Measures

“To date, the federal government has taken two key actions to deter persons with suspected COVID-19 infection from entering the country or spreading the virus to persons within the United States. First, the federal government has restricted the entry of many non-U.S. nationals (aliens) who recently have been physically present in mainland China, Iran, or much of Europe. Second, the federal government has imposed a quarantine requirement on all persons entering the United States, regardless of citizenship status, who have recently been to those areas. This Legal Sidebar examines the legal authorities underlying these actions, as well as possible legal challenges to their use.”

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Global Economic Effects of COVID-19: In Brief

“Policymakers are being overwhelmed by the quickly changing nature of the crisis that has compounded a health issue with what could become a global trade and economic crisis whose potential effects on the global economy are rapidly growing.”

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Postponing Federal Elections and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Legal Considerations

“This Sidebar reviews the legal provisions that would constrain any efforts to delay or cancel federal elections during a public health crisis or other national emergency. The first part reviews laws pertaining to presidential elections, and the second part reviews laws relevant to congressional elections.”

State of the Union: Frequently Asked Questions, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

History, Evolution, and Practices of the President’s State of the Union Address: Frequently Asked Questions, updated January 29, 2020

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement: A Summary, January 29, 2020

The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” and U.S. Policy: Main Points and Possible Questions for Congress, January 28, 2020

Solar Energy: Frequently Asked Questions, January 27, 2020

Challenges to the United States in SpaceCRS In Focus, updated January 27, 2020

Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2020, updated January 13, 2020

National Emergency Powers, updated December 5, 2019

Diplomacy with North Korea: A Status ReportCRS In Focus, January 22, 2020

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites, updated February 3, 2020

Presidential Pardons: Overview and Selected Legal Issues, January 14, 2020

Congressional Oversight Manual, updated January 16, 2020

Artificial Intelligence and National Security, and More from CRS

The 2019 defense authorization act directed the Secretary of Defense to produce a definition of artificial intelligence (AI) by August 13, 2019 to help guide law and policy. But that was not done.

Therefore “no official U.S. government definition of AI yet exists,” the Congressional Research Service observed in a newly updated report on the subject.

But plenty of other unofficial and sometimes inconsistent definitions do exist. And in any case, CRS noted, “AI research is underway in the fields of intelligence collection and analysis, logistics, cyber operations, information operations, command and control, and in a variety of semiautonomous and autonomous vehicles. Already, AI has been incorporated into military operations in Iraq and Syria.”

“The Central Intelligence Agency alone has around 140 projects in development that leverage AI in some capacity to accomplish tasks such as image recognition and predictive analytics.” CRS surveys the field in Artificial Intelligence and National Security, updated November 21, 2019.

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The 2018 financial audit of the Department of Defense, which was the first such audit ever, cost a stunning $413 million to perform. Its findings were assessed by CRS in another new report. See Department of Defense First Agency-wide Financial Audit (FY2018): Background and Issues for Congress, November 27, 2019.

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The Arctic region is increasingly important as a focus of security, environmental and economic concern. So it is counterintuitive — and likely counterproductive — that the position of U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic has been left vacant since January 2017. In practice it has been effectively eliminated by the Trump Administration. See Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress, updated November 27, 2019.

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Other noteworthy new and updated CRS reports include the following (which are also available through the CRS public website at crsreports.congress.gov).

Resolutions to Censure the President: Procedure and History, updated November 20, 2019

Immigration: Recent Apprehension Trends at the U.S. Southwest Border, November 19, 2019

Air Force B-21 Raider Long Range Strike Bomber, updated November 13, 2019

Precision-Guided Munitions: Background and Issues for Congress, November 6, 2019

Space Weather: An Overview of Policy and Select U.S. Government Roles and Responsibilities, November 20, 2019

Intelligence Community Spending: Trends and Issues, updated November 6, 2019

Impeachment Investigations: Law and Process (CRS)

The procedures that govern congressional impeachment investigations are largely left to the discretion of the House and, in the case of a trial, to the discretion of the Senate.

new publication from the Congressional Research Service summarizes the options. It “also describes some of the ways in which an impeachment investigation, as compared to a more traditional investigation for legislative or oversight purposes, might bolster the House’s ability to obtain, either voluntarily or through the courts, information from the executive branch.” Finally, it “briefly describes possible future steps that might follow an impeachment inquiry, including possible action by the Senate.”

See Impeachment Investigations: Law and ProcessCRS Legal Sidebar, October 2, 2019

Some other noteworthy new CRS publications include the following.

Ukraine: Background, Conflict with Russia, and U.S. Policy, updated September 19, 2019

Military Space Reform: FY2020 NDAA Legislative ProposalsCRS In Focus, October 2, 2019

American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, updated September 24, 2019

Defense Primer: Defense Support of Civil AuthoritiesCRS In Focus, October 2, 2019

Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protections (CRS)

Noteworthy new and updated publications from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protections: In Brief, updated September 23, 2019

U.S.-Iran Tensions and Implications for U.S. Policy, updated September 23, 2019

U.S. Role in the World: Background and Issues for Congress, updated September 23, 2019

U.N. Peacekeeping Operations in Africa, September 23, 2019

China’s Retaliatory Tariffs on U.S. Agriculture: In Brief, September 24, 2019

Global Research and Development Expenditures: Fact Sheet, updated September 19, 2019

U.S. Research and Development Funding and Performance: Fact Sheet, updated September 19, 2019

Defense Primers for Members of Congress

The Congressional Research Service developed “a series of short primers to provide Members of Congress an overview of key aspects of the Department of Defense and how Congress exercises authority over it.” The defense primers, several of which have been recently updated, can be found here.

Other noteworthy recent CRS publications include the following.

Overseas Contingency Operations Funding: Background and Status, updated September 6, 2019

Congress and the War in Yemen: Oversight and Legislation 2015-2019, updated September 6, 2019

Afghanistan: Issues for Congress and Legislation 2017-2019, updated September 3, 2019

DHS Border Barrier Funding, updated September 6, 2019

Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons, updated September 6, 2019

Kashmir, Autonomous Weapons, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new publications from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Kashmir: Background, Recent Developments, and U.S. Policy, August 16, 2019

Global Trends in HIV/AIDSCRS In Focus, updated August 15, 2019

Retroactive Legislation: A Primer for CongressCRS In Focus, August 15, 2019

Words Taken Down: Calling Members to Order for Disorderly Language in the House, August 13, 2019

International Discussions Concerning Lethal Autonomous Weapon SystemsCRS In Focus, August 16, 2019

Domestic Terrorism: Some Considerations

The problem of domestic terrorism is distinct from that of foreign terrorism because of the constitutional protections enjoyed by U.S. persons, the Congressional Research Service explained last week.

“Constitutional principles — including federalism and the rights to free speech, free association, peaceable assembly, petition for the redress of grievances — may complicate the task of conferring domestic law enforcement with the tools of foreign intelligence gathering.” See Domestic Terrorism: Some ConsiderationsCRS Legal Sidebar, August 12, 2019.

Some other noteworthy new publications from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Convergence of Cyberspace Operations and Electronic WarfareCRS In Focus, August 13, 2019

Renewed Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense–Issues for Congress, updated August 5, 2019

U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, updated August 7, 2019

U.S.-North Korea RelationsCRS In Focus, updated August 13, 2019 (which notes that “Pyongyang appears to be losing its ability to control information inflows from the outside world.”)

Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization, August 5, 2019