In 2014, in collaboration with The Marshall Project, MuckRock published the first nationwide, agency-by-agency breakdown of military equipment distributed for free to police via the 1033 program, which transfers excess material to thousands of participating law enforcement agencies, including local police, sheriffs, and state public safety forces, across the country. It took more than a year to pry such granular data loose. We ultimately prevailed because of one crucial realization: The program’s structure makes its spreadsheets subject to state records laws, which we played against the federal statute to force the Pentagon’s hand.
It started with a bomb robot.
Fifty Years of FOIA
In October 2013, having learned that police in Madison, Wisconsin obtained an explosive ordnance robot—as well as a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP)—I started rooting around the particulars of the 1033 program, created in 1989. I found scattered stories about the program, but no comprehensive listing of which agencies had received equipment. I fired off a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to program administrators at the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).
But DLA staff answered that they could not disclose which agency received what weapon, armored vehicle, or aircraft. The spreadsheet they gave me in December 2013 listed each allocated item, but only the state for its recipient. (Oddly, the DLA released data down to the county level in May 2014 to The New York Times.) I was annoyed, but juggling a few other projects, so I didn’t appeal.
Then Ferguson happened.
Pictures of police in military gear and armored vehicles sparked my resolve to get agency-by-agency data. Late night research revealed that each state has its own coordinator for the 1033 program, typically an administrator in the state police or procurement office. Each governor-appointed coordinator tracks equipment given to agencies within the state.
Blocked at the federal level, I requested inventory spreadsheets from all 50 coordinators under their relevant state laws in late August 2014. My strategy for the FOIA flurry was two-fold. First, I would stitch together, one state at a time, the detailed data that informed debate required. Second, by building a quorum of states, I would make it ludicrous for the Pentagon to withhold the nationwide database.
Within three weeks, more than half the states gave me detailed spreadsheets on equipment transfers. The DLA held its ground, claiming in late September that handing over agency-level data would endanger lives.
But by early November, 12 states either refused to release their data or else responded that spreadsheets were inaccessible. A 13th, Louisiana, was in a category unto itself: The state’s Federal Property Assistance Agency replied that this information was available upon payment of $5,000—plus shipping.
On November 21, 2014, without any public announcement, the DLA posted comprehensive tables online. The data was uploaded to the agency’s FOIA reading room under hyperlinks that previously contained only county-level information. The DLA did not advise MuckRock of this.
MuckRock only learned of the posting on December 1, after the White House issued findings that the 1033 program lacked transparency. When I pressed the 13 still-laggard states for greater disclosure, two responded that complete inventory lists were already available. “FYI: The DLA released a complete inventory list for every state,” the West Virginia State Police stated. “The information you are requesting is readily available through the DLA website,” said the Virginia State Police. I visited the agency’s page, downloaded the unassuming spreadsheets, and fished around for police departments that scored anti-mine footwear. MuckRock and The Marshall Project published our analysis on December 3, 2014.
The DLA acknowledged that efforts at the state level spurred release of the nationwide spreadsheets. A spokesperson credited the “discretionary release” of the data to “the passage of time, and the release of information to the public by the state coordinators and law enforcement agencies.”
The state-by-state approach requires tenacity, patience, and organization. But by haggling with 50 separate agencies in 50 separate states for snippets of a larger picture, we prodded the program’s federal administrators to release the entire frame.