Ever hear of the Freedom of Information Act? Ever read "Catch-22"? Here´s the connection.
Miles Moore, our Washington reporter, filed an FOIA request with the Justice Department, looking for dirt . . . uh, information . . . about the lengthy investigation of alleged price-fixing by U.S. tire manufacturers. Now, you have to understand that Justice (as Miles calls it) officially is tight as a clam when it comes to discussing an investigation. In fact, the department won´t even admit they have one going until it´s over.
It was Miles´ job to pry out the story, and through other sources he did learn and report about the probe ending. But he also wanted to know what prompted the investigation, how it was conducted and why it was halted.
It´s my impression government operatives who turn out reports are paid by the word. That´s why they go on, and on and on, covering every triviality ad nauseam (the Ken Starr report being the most public of this phenomenon).
So after eight years, we knew there´d be the kind of tidbits available about tire companies that make an aggressive reporter salivate. Among other things, the FOIA law requires government entities to cough up all the documents they collected during an investigation. The tire industry case generated, literally, as much as 1 million pages of documents, including 2,500 memos and letters. Miles was drooling.
Here´s where "Catch-22" comes in. In Joseph Heller´s World War II comic-tragic book, his protagonist, Yossarian, has to censor letters enlisted men are sending home, blackening out anything that could be used by the enemy if the missives were intercepted. He routinely butchers them, leaving little more than a salutation and "Your husband."
Yossarian lives. In the Justice materials, entire sections are deleted. Of the documents Miles particularly wanted, only 133 pages were released, and those were heavily censored. For example, one section says, "Michelin, at least, appears to . . . " followed by blacked-out sentences, and concluding with " . . . this seems an appropriate matter to investigate."
What a tease. Rest easy, Tire Industry Barons. Your secrets remain safe.
Noga is editor of Rubber & Plastics News.