Nearly a year has passed since black helicopters, the boogeyman in every conspiracist’s nightmare, raced noisily between skyscrapers in the night skies above downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
No one except top city leaders and police knew about it beforehand. People were surprised, alarmed, even angry.
The next day, it took some time on the phone before I could find an Army spokesman to confirm that, yes, the Twin Cities area was hosting a five-day military exercise training pilots and crews to maneuver in urban settings.
That didn’t really answer the questions about why public notice wasn’t given and what, if anything, the cooperating cities were getting out of the deal.
Public Record Media wondered too. So the St. Paul-based nonprofit, which uses freedom of information laws to pry internal documents out of government offices, requested e-mails and memos from the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
They waited four months for Minneapolis’ documents, which didn’t tell them much. They waited nearly 10 months to get St. Paul’s records, which produced last week’s news stories about the secrecy surrounding the mission.
They’re still waiting for the feds to respond — not just to this request but to one filed a few years ago on a similar Twin Cities exercise in 2012. Matt Ehling isn’t holding his breath.
“The military could have avoided a lot of the public relations fallout if they had been a little more forthcoming about what they were doing,” said Ehling, Public Record’s executive director.
Ehling is a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker whose company, ETS Pictures, does contract work for public TV and nonprofits. He started Public Record in 2009 to help pick up the slack for newsrooms whose budgets were being cut.
Public Record doesn’t have much of a budget itself, just $54,000 with much of it going to pay for litigation. It received its first grant last year, $10,000 from the Sunlight Foundation of Washington, D.C., to train citizens on how to obtain government records. Three or four people get paid on a contract basis. Ehling isn’t one of them.
The organization has pressed the U.S. Department of Justice for possible records justifying the killing of Americans with drones — the department finally said it had no such records — and went to court to get information from the U.S. Interior Department on proposed mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
Responses to FOIA inquiries, as freedom of information requests are dubbed, can vary from time to time and agency to agency. Five of the six entities contacted on BWCA mining did get back to Public Record, including two state and three federal agencies.
“Waits can be frustrating, but sometimes [agencies] legitimately are overwhelmed with material. It depends on what time you hit them,” Ehling said.
The documents on last summer’s military exercise showed at least two things, he said: the military-imposed blackout leading up to the chopper training was unwise, and more attention should be paid to collaboration between the active-duty military and local police.
“It’s unfortunate that federal authorities saw fit to conceal [the military training] from local lawmakers,” Ehling said. “I don’t think that’s the way a free society should function.”