A court decision on January 22 thwarted the FBI’s attempt to eviscerate the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by creating an exemption that would have allowed it to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any record the agency wanted to keep secret.
Judge Randolph D. Moss of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia argued [PDF] the FBI asked the court to “recognize a new doctrine.” This “doctrine” would permit the agency to “withhold an entire category of otherwise unprotected records” in order to exclude them from FOIA requests.
“The FBI’s present policy would permit it to deny access to a large number of records that are neither exempt nor excluded,” Moss added. It would enable the FBI to conceal hundreds of processing records for every document simply because a “sophisticated FOIA requester” might be able to “infer the existence” of information considered to be sensitive.
The decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by individuals angry and frustrated with the FBI’s process for searching for documents when responding to FOIA requests. These individuals requested records—search slips, case processing notes, case evaluation forms, etc—which would show whether an adequate search was conducted by the FBI or not, and the FBI refused to release the records.
One of the plaintiffs, Ryan Shapiro, who is well-known for his scholarly work which depends on documents obtained through FOIA, told Shadowproof, “When it comes to FOIA, the FBI is simply not operating in good faith.”
“Since its earliest days, the FBI has viewed political dissent as a security threat. And since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI has viewed efforts to force Bureau compliance with FOIA in the same light,” Shapiro maintained.
As a result, the FBI has spent the past years establishing and perfecting numerous methods for avoiding compliance with FOIA.