FBI has “blackballed” records, violated FOIA

Truthout reporter Jason Leopold is reporting today that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released five pages of a PowerPoint presentation that describe a previously unknown program of “blackballing” records that would not be disclosed in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Labor historian Trevor Griffey obtained the document while following up on Manning Marable’s research on Malcolm X. Dr. Marable was a Columbia University professor who founded the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. He died last year, and Griffey made a FOIA request to the FBI to ask for its documentation about Dr. Marable’s requests about Malcolm X. An FBI analyst eventually disclosed that a search on Marable turned up a single file that was “blackballed” per the “standard operating procedure.” Griffey made another request for documents about the blackballing procedure. This request produced the five pages from a PowerPoint presentation. It says that the FBI would blackball a record if it

Would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law

This text is from FOIA Exemption (b)(7)(E) [5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(E)]. What is disturbing is that instead of producing a copy of the document with the classified information blacked out, the FBI was denying the existence of documents that actually do exist. The whole point of FOIA is that we can build trust and confidence in government operations through a process by which government offices share their information, with certain limited exceptions. While the government retains the right to classify certain information, or even to respond that the existence of non-existence of a document is itself classified (the so-called “Glomar response”), it undermines public confidence when it makes a false statement that no document exists. The PowerPoint pages themselves had certain portions redacted so that we in the public cannot even know all the categories of documents that are “blackballed.” Hopefully, wiser heads will soon prevail and the FBI will reform its FOIA procedures so that the public will have accurate information about when and why information is withheld.

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