Go FOIA yourself…you might be surprised
posted by Tuan Samahon
I have a love/hate relationship with FOIA. I need it and can’t live without it. For those who do original primary research, it’s an essential tool. But it is also painfully slow, hit or miss, unpredictable, and frustrating.
It also turns out that FOIA research may make you the subject of FBI scrutiny. The FBI approaches disclosure of information (predictably) like a security agency.
Author and attorney Alexander Charns wrote a very interesting book entitled Cloak and Gavel (1992), which concerned the history of the Supreme Court and its interactions with the FBI. Pursuant to one of his FOIA requests seeking historical records about Hoover abuses of power, the FBI inadvertently released to him an internal FBI memorandum that described him, his research, and the type of information he was provided. Apparently, such memoranda on FOIA requesters are not uncommon. They are called “high visibility memoranda” and are created by the FBI FOIA section to “anticipate and minimize negative publicity resulting from FOIA releases.” A former student who recently worked with FOIA shared that she too was aware of similar memoranda maintained by the government. Apparently this practice continues.
Laying aside any question about the FBI’s authority to prepare such memoranda (perhaps based on Google research or other Internet-based information), does the FBI appreciate how the maintenance of memoranda about FOIA requesters plays with the public? I won’t hold out great hopes for more information transparency from the Obama administration, but perhaps it could at least get the FBI to lay off on the domestic FOIA surveillance?
Update (3-29-2010): This article just ran today in the Boston Globe’s online edition on the subject of the FBI, the release of documents held in the FBI’s “Special File Room,” and their availability through a volunteer group called governmentattic.org. H/T Michael Ravnitzky