Learn About the Family That Mined the Pentagon’s Data for Their Own Profit
by Matthew Gilligan
If it weren’t for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was passed into law in 1967, the public would be in the dark about a great number of things that are now common knowledge. Amendments were added to the FOIA after the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s that gave the law even more strength.
Journalists, historians, activists, and even businesspeople have used the FOIA to let the public in on formerly secretive details about government operations…and some people have used the law for their own gains.
And a man named George MacArthur Posey III, along with his family members, used the FOIA in ways to enrich themselves and became unlikely symbols of freedom and transparency.
Posey owned a family business in Southern California called Newport Aeronautical Sales and thought that his company could benefit financially by learning about how certain American military aircraft were constructed. Posey’s company was interested in technical manuals and engineering drawings and in the late 1970s he began filing paperwork with the government using the FOIA to secure this information.
But there was one catch: Posey wanted to sell this unclassified government information that he obtained through filing FOIA requests to the highest bidder. And that’s a practice that continues today with many people and businesses. A 2017 analysis of 229,000 FOIA requests showed that only 8% of the requests came from journalists.
Over the years, Posey’s company Newport Aeronautical Sales accumulated a treasure trove of information and manuals about American military aircraft and it turned out to be profitable. The Pentagon uses many of its aircraft for decades longer than a commercial airline company would and over time, the options for fixing these aircraft become expensive and hard-to-find.
The Pentagon typically owns the technical data needed to fix these aircraft but has to pay suppliers for parts. This has led to a multibillion-dollar industry of companies that bid on and repair these aircraft. And Posey’s vast collection of manuals and blueprints he and his company had accumulated led to big money.
Posey’s tactic was big business: he’d pay $5 or $10 to obtain a photocopy of specific documents and then would upcharge companies $200 or more to get the information. And the companies would gladly pay it. A Newport Aeronautical employee said, “we had this stuff at our fingertips, whereas it would take a repair facility a month or two months to get the data, and they wouldn’t be able to quote for the work. That’s the model, and it’s a brilliant model.”
Posey often sold plans and manuals to other countries and this landed him on the FBI’s radar in the 1980s. The agency was especially worried about the Soviet Union getting its hands on unclassified data that they believed could pose a threat to national security.
Some of Posey’s requests began to be turned down but instead of accepting this new reality, Posey sued the Navy. The case was settled and it was determined that Posey could get the information he was looking for but couldn’t resell to certain contractors.
Later in the 1980s, Posey later found himself in hot water for dealing with the South African military. The country was heavily sanctioned by the American government during this time because of their apartheid-style government and Posey was arrested and was charged with conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act. Posey fought the case and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and wasn’t allowed to sell to foreign buyers for five years.
Posey served only four years at a medium-security prison and the 1990s and 2000s saw him embroiled in even more fights with the government over his business dealings. After the events of September 11, 2001, the government decided it would only give technical orders to companies if they could assure it was linked to a specific government contract.
Nevertheless, Posey continued to push the envelope and was turned down by different agencies when he requested information. He sued the Air Force in 2004 for not fulfilling FOIA requests. He wrote, “Potential competitors who relied on NAS for data could not bid on solicitations issued by the Air Force, other DOD buying agencies and our allies. As a result, original equipment manufacturers were often the only manufacturer with data. This further resulted in awards of overpriced noncompetitive contracts.”
The lawsuit was dismissed and it was ruled that the government could withhold technical manuals, even if they were unclassified. This led Posey and his company to explore other avenues to obtain information.
His son Mac joined the company in 2009 and over the course of 10 years they paid $589,000 for over 5,000 plans and drawings to a woman in Florida named Melony Erice who had worked for different aerospace companies but was never a Pentagon employee. The information bought from Erice was turned into a profit of $2.1 million for Posey’s company.
It turned out that Melony Erice was getting her information from a civilian employee of the Navy in Philadelphia who was illegally downloading the files while using his access to military facilities.
This time, the feds came for Mac Posey in September 2020 and he was charged with receiving stolen government property, conspiracy to steal government property, and conspiracy to commit bribery of a federal public official. His case is ongoing and he faces 10 years in prison.
Whatever the next chapter is for the Posey family and their business, there’s no doubt that they exploited the Freedom of Information Act for their own profit and raised many questions about the ethics of sensitive information that is unclassified.