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Now back to our regularly scheduled program...

Cover-Up or Bloated Bureaucracy Boondoggle?

As many of you know, on the surface The Anta Project is mostly about transforming the US/Mexico border walls, fences and ephemera from symbols of fear, loathing and environmental hubris into instruments capable of promoting unity through sound, performance and listening.

But equally important is the project's narrative, and this is where The Anta Project is also an exercise in experimental sound journalism.

From the moment former President George W. Bush pushed forward with his plans to wall in America, I've been documenting my small corner of Sonoran Desert with soundings, images, performance and words.

In that time I've published two articles about the work, maintained a Web site and blog, presented it at a handful of universities and taken interested people on educational sound tours of the area.

Every day roughly 200 unique visitors visit from virtually every corner of the globe. Doing the math and not accounting for periods of high traffic which can top 1,000 daily visitors, roughly 400,000 people have visited the site since it went live in 2006.

And while I'm the first to admit experimental sound journalism is not exactly traditional journalism, it is none-the-less journalism. In this age when the old forms of journalism have been compromised by advertising concerns and drained of their vitality, this new form is self-sustaining and robust without having to accept the influence of advertising dollars.

As part of The Anta Project's documentation process, in June I decided to file a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request with U.S. Customs and Border Protection seeking any and all video or audio concerning the soundings and performances I'd done with the border wall. I also provided them with specific dates and times to narrow it down.

Learning how the US Border Patrol/ Department of Homeland Security documented, catalogued and viewed this exercise in wall playing will add a new dimension to The Anta Project narrative.

In addition to video and audio, I also requested any paperwork or files they might have on me/The Anta Project, since on multiple occassions I'd been detained and my identification verified (Including the infamous Russian Spy incident ).

Finally, I requested any and all fees be waived since everything obtained would be used for educational and journalistic purposes with minimal if any financial gain.

Nearly a month after I filed my FOIA request I received a phone call from FOIA Analyst for Customs and Border Protection Patrick Howard.

Howard said he was calling to determine if I wanted to go through with my request.

In addition to indicating my request would likely be costly to process, he also informed me there was no sound.

Not a problem, I said, I have all the sound I need and can easily dub in the video. As for the fees, I'd applied for a waiver as a journalist and educator and expected to be exempt.

On July 3 I received a letter (
Page 1,   Page 2 ) dated June 17, but postmarked July 1,  from FOIA Division Director Dorothy Pullo stating they were processing my request. The letter noted there were six hours of video and I'd be responsible for paying any fees at $25 per hour for a maximum $250.

I was curious about the nearly two week gap between the date on the letter and the postmark.

Since I'd mailed my FOIA on May 17, I technically should have received a response around June 17 depending on the mail.

My gut told me it was backdated so they could stay in compliance with the 20-day response period.

Around July 14 I received a second letter (
Page 1 , Page 2 ) from Pullo stating I needed to pay $280 up-front to analyze nine hours of video they found at a rate of $28 an hour.

The letter stated my request for a fee waiver was also denied. The reasons for denying the fee waiver were lengthy standard boilerplate and I immediately considered appealing them.

After all, who is the government to decide the significance of news value or who the audience for that material will be?

Clearly, based on the global spread of The Anta Project via media coverage such as  NPR, Signal-to-NoisePhoenix New Times, Boing-Boing , and so on, the audience is globally significant and the public is interested in hearing more.

This fee, the letter stated, was only the beginning of my costs. Paying the $280 did not guarantee I would receive the material.  Rather, once the initial $280 was paid they would then review the material and decide how much of it needed to be sent out for "redacting"  which would incur additional and undeterminable fees.

Now, for someone like myself, a freelance sound sculptor/ journalist/ baker and so on,  paying $280 is at the limit of what I can afford.

There is a recession going on.

Times are tight, right?

And hearing a federal employee with full benefits is making $28 an hour to review video of ordinary Americans doing ordinary stuff like playing a border wall with a cello bow makes me think I ought to find a way to get on the federal teat.

Perhaps I'd qualify for the position of Border Wall Acoustical Research Director?

But I digress.

Not sure what to do next, on July 15
I decided to give Pullo a call.

Although there is no phone number listed on the second letter, if there is one thing my 20 plus years as a reporter have taught me, it is how to work the phones.

So I followed one lead after another and the next thing I know I am being connected with Pullo's direct line.

And while I'm glad to reach Pullo, she is clearly unhappy to hear from me.

Turns out people like myself, private citizens filing FOIA requests, do not get to speak with Pullo directly. She has a staff for people like me. And I understand that.

Pullo is gracious and gives me over ten minutes of her time, answering my questions.

The conversation is invaluable and I am sincerely appreciative that she is willing to speak with me.

During our conversation, she notes that she remembers my request specifically which is flattering considering the volume of FOIA requests they receive.

It also makes me think The Anta Project must be "significant" to stand out like that.

By the end of the conversation we agree it is best to limit my request to a single performance and go from there so it will remain cost effective.

Pullo takes my home and cell numbers then says she will have one of her staff get back with me the next day.

Now call me naive, but I really thought I'd get a call back.

It's my government right?  I'm a citizen. We're on the same side. They make their money off my taxes.

So I waited.

And waited.

But of course, like so many with whom I shared this story predicted, no one ever called back.

After roughly a week,
I tried to reach Howard the analyst,  leaving him a message about my conversation with Pullo. But he too failed to return my phone call.

Soon after, the 30 day deadline for action on my part passed and the file was automatically "closed."

So now I'll have to refile again, but this time limit the scope and argue the merits of a fee waiver.

But in the mean time I'm left to wonder:

Is there something on those nine hours of video too sensitive for the world to see/hear? 

Is this just the tip of Border Wallgate?

And if so, who heard what and when did they hear it?

Is America ready for a borderland without fear and loathing?

Or can't we handle the truth?

Those questions and many others still loom large.

But what I really want to know, more than anything else is:  How the hell do I get myself one of those federal video watching jobs? 

Pay me $28 an hour with full benefits and I'll even return your calls.

Stay tuned for more as The FOIA Turns....

But till then, for your listening/viewing pleasure, a recent fun borderland playing session with musician - journalist - archeologist - musicologist - hiking guide - educator - environmentalist and on-air personality Matt Nelson.