Blackballed: How the FBI Bends FOIA

by | Feb 7, 2012 | Videos

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by James Corbett
February 7, 2012

The Freedom of Information Act is intended to be one of the American citizens’ key checks against the fraud and corruption that inevitably happens in the corridors of power when information can be hidden behind a secrecy classification.

Originally enacted in 1966, it has been used to bring to light a number of startling documents over the years, from internal memoranda on the Bush administration torture program to contracts exposing how Homeland Security is using social media to monitor lawful political dissent to financial records detailing the ties of Federal Reserve presidents to the corporate world.

One agency of the government that has been notoriously uncooperative with the spirit and the letter of the FOIA law, however, is the FBI. Since the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the Bureau has zealously guarded some of its key documents and acted to stonewall those seeking access to sensitive records, which are said to include scandalous details of some of the highest ranking political figures of the past century and explosive details of some of the Bureau’s biggest investigations.

Last year on the Eyeopener we examined some of the methods that the FBI has used over the years to protect key documents from Freedom of Information requests.

In that report we detailed how the Bureau keeps separate files and storage spaces for case notes where problematic documents can be inserted to stop them from showing up in FOIA-related requests. Using different names like “June files,” “zero files,” “S-drive” and “I-drive,” these files can be used to collect all of the data and documents related to an investigation before the final, official file is created. As we detailed at the time, if the Bureau did not want a particular document to show up in a FOIA search of their records, all they would have to do is to make sure that it did not end up being transferred from the “temporary” storage to the final case file.

Now, yet another method of circumventing FOIA requests has been uncovered.

Last month, Jason Leopold of detailed the story of Trevor Griffey, the co-founder and Project Coordinator of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. In the course of his research for the project, Griffey filed a FOIA request to discover if Manning Marble, the founder of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, had ever filed a FOIA request for Malcolm X’s FBI files. Puzzled by a response suggesting the FBI could not identify any such documents in their “main file records,” Griffey contacted an FBI FOIA analyst who admitted that a file responsive to his request had in fact been “blackballed” as part of the Bureau’s “standard operating procedure.”

Filing a FOIA request for more information about the blackballing process itself, Griffey managed to obtain part of an internal PowerPoint presentation revealing key details of the blackballing procedure.

“Blackballed” files are files that are initially pulled up as being responsive to a Freedom of Information request, but which an analyst deems to be not pertinent to the original request. When that file is “blackballed” even the fact that it was pulled up at all is not reported to the FOIA requester.

Leopold cites Arlington, Virginia based attorney Kel McClanahan as saying that he has seen the FBI “blackball records because they ‘weren’t FBI records,’ even though they were in FBI files[…]. I’ve seen it blackball records because the request asked for ‘internal FBI records’ and the records in question were sent outside of the FBI, based on a strained interpretation of the word ‘internal.’”

As disturbing as this new finding is, there is also a potential remedy. Ironically enough, when information has been blackballed, that process itself can be discovered under its own, separate Freedom of Information request.

Jason Leopold appeared on Corbett Report Radio last month to explain.

While this information is potentially empowering to those who receive a “no responsive records” notice to a FOIA request, the entire process of blackballing raises a troubling question about the nature of governmental secrecy itself.

Government secrecy by its very nature relies on a trust that not only those currently in charge of the system will not abuse the public trust, but that no conceivable group in the future will ever use the cloak of secrecy to hide government abuses and corruption.

Now, after the American public has been lied to again and again, through decade after decade, about Pearl Harbor and the Gulf of Tonkin, about Iran-contra and Saddam’s WMDs, about torture and warrantless wiretapping, about 9/11 and the war on terror, how could it any longer be a hypothetical question whether those in positions of authority have abused that trust?

And given that self-same history, if government agencies are once again finding new tricks and loopholes to hide information from the public that they are ostensibly there to serve, how can the system of governmental secrecy institutionalized and whitewashed by the Freedom of Information Act be justified at all?



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