FBI Tries To Limit Info Searches

FBI Tries To Limit Info Searches
Sat Jan 22, 2005 03:56

BI Tries To Limit Info Searches
WASHINGTON, Jan. 21, 2005

The FBI is fighting in court to limit how hard it has
to search for government documents requested by the
public under the Freedom of Information Act, one of
the main laws for ensuring openness in government.

If the bureau prevails, people could have a diminished
chance of getting documents from the nation's most
famous law enforcement agency, open records experts

In court, the FBI is defending a recent automated
search that missed some documents that had been
released years ago in a separate FOIA case.

Representing the FBI, the Justice Department asked a
federal judge this month to dismiss this lawsuit and
said its request should not be undermined "by an
unsuccessful search for a document as long as the
search was adequate." FBI officials declined to
further address the ongoing litigation.

Justice Department guidelines say the law requires a
search "reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant

Legal and academic critics say the search in this case
didn't meet that standard. They said they suspect the
transfer of records from paper to electronic files has
become an excuse for doing cursory searches that the
government knows won't retrieve all relevant

"We all thought that digitization of government
documents and electronic FOIA would mean greater
public access, but time and again we've seen
government agencies use it as an excuse for
obfuscation," said Jane Kirtley, a University of
Minnesota journalism professor who has waged many FOIA
battles. "They say, 'We don't have the software set up
to find what you're looking for.'"

The lawsuit in question was filed by Salt Lake City
lawyer Jesse Trentadue, who is pursuing a theory his
brother Kenneth was murdered in a federal prison
isolation cell in Oklahoma City on Aug. 21, 1995.
Kenneth's bloody and bruised corpse raised questions
of foul play among many officials, but local and
federal investigations ruled his death a suicide.

Last summer, Trentadue requested:

* A Jan. 4, 1996, teletype from FBI Director Louis
Freeh's office to the Oklahoma City and Omaha, Neb.,
offices that discussed the 1995 Oklahoma City federal
building bombers (the FBI's OKBOMB case) and a Midwest
gang of bank robbers (the FBI's BOMBROB case). He
enclosed a newspaper story with excerpts from the

* The FBI's record of an interview Trentadue says
he gave an agent and two Justice Department officials
Aug. 12, 1996, discussing his dead brother and the
bank robbery gang, including one member who resembled

* All documents about any connection between the
Southern Poverty Law Center and eight named
individuals from the OKBOMB and BOMBROB investigations
or a white supremacist compound in Elohim City, Okla.

The FBI told Trentadue Nov. 18 it found no documents
matching his requests.

Trentadue responded Nov. 30 by filing with the court a
copy of the January 1996 teletype, which he had found
in the meantime had been released under FOIA in 1997.
Trentadue also submitted a copy of an August 1996
teletype from Freeh's office that said two of the bank
robbers were present when Oklahoma City bomber Tim
McVeigh called the Elohim City compound. That too was
released years earlier under FOIA.

Trentadue asked the court to order another FBI search.

But this month, the Justice Department told the court
that, despite not uncovering those documents, "the
FOIA search in this case was reasonable."

David M. Hardy, chief of the FBI's record/information
dissemination section, told the court the FBI had
searched the general indices to its central records
system and two shared computer drives in the Oklahoma
City office.

Hardy, however, acknowledged the indices are not
complete. "The FBI does not index every name in its
files," Hardy told the court. The investigating agent
and supervisors have discretion to index other names
if they are "considered pertinent, relevant or
essential for future retrieval."

It's not clear that any other federal agency has an
index like the FBI's, and many federal agencies do
paper rather than computerized FOIA searches.

Given the details Trentadue provided, Rebecca
Daugherty, director of the FOI Service Center at the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the
government's response "doesn't sound reasonable."

"To ignore the map given by the requester is something
the FBI should not be doing," Daugherty said. "If a
requester can accurately describe a case so the agency
can easily find the file, then it's reasonable to
search that case file."

Citing the litigation, FBI Assistant Director
Cassandra Chandler declined to say how much detail
requesters must supply to extend a search beyond FBI
indices to case files.

She also declined to say how the "OKBOMB" search could
fail to produce the January teletype, in which the
first listed subject was "OKBOMB." Trentadue also
supplied the correct date, sender, two accurate
recipients and direct quotes.

Despite refusing in court this month to redo the
search even after Trentadue supplied copies of two
teletypes, the FBI changed its response once The
Associated Press inquired about the case.

FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said that after Trentadue
supplied the two documents the FBI was able to find
them and would provide him copies.

"Get off your ass and take your government back." ~Rocky Ward



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