FBI Sanctioned for Lying About Existence of Surveillance Records
An order from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California has revealed the FBI lied to the court about the existence of records requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), taking the position that FOIA allows it to withhold information from the court whenever it thinks this is in the interest of national security. Using the strongest possible language, the court disagreed: “The Government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the Court.” Islamic Shura Council of S. Cal. v. FBI (“Shura Council I”), No. 07-1088, 3 (C.D. Cal. April 27, 2011) (emphasis added).
This case may prove relevant in EFF’s ongoing FOIA litigation against the FBI. As discussed further below, one of the issues in Shura Council was the FBI’s extensive and improper use of “outside the scope” redactions. The agency has also used these heavily in at least one of our current cases — in areas where it is highly unlikely the material blocked out is actually outside the scope of our FOIA request. (see example to the left from our case seeking records on the government’s push to expand federal surveillance laws). We’ll be writing more about that case in the coming weeks and posting the documents we received on this site soon.
Shura Council started five years ago in May 2006, after widespread reporting on the FBI’s programs targeting Muslims after September 11, 2001. At that time, several Muslim citizens and organizations in Southern California, including the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), submitted a broad joint FOIA request to the FBI seeking “[a]ny records relating or referring” to themselves, “including . . . records that document any collection of information about monitoring, surveillance, observation, questioning, interrogation, investigation and/or infiltration[.]” Shura Council I at 4.
In 2008, after the FBI produced only minimal records, the requesters filed a federal lawsuit. The FBI then searched for and located additional records for nine of the plaintiffs, but these records were heavily redacted, with much of the information withheld as “outside the scope” of the plaintiffs’ FOIA request. The FBI attested, in documents and declarations it submitted under oath to the court, that these were all the records that existed about the plaintiffs and that the materials labeled “outside the scope” were “not responsive” to the plaintiffs’ FOIA request.
After court ordered the FBI to submit full versions of the records in camera, along with a new declaration about the agency’s search, the FBI revealed for the first time that it had materially and fundamentally mislead the court in its earlier filings. The unaltered versions of the documents showed that the information the agency had withheld as “outside the scope” was actually well within the scope of the plaintiffs’ FOIA request. The government also admitted it had a large number of additional responsive documents that it hadn’t told the plaintiffs or the court about. Id. at 7-8.
If these revelations weren’t bad enough, the FBI also argued FOIA allows it to mislead the court where it believes revealing information would “compromise national security.” Id. at 9. The FBI also argued, that “its initial representations to the Court were not technically false” because although the information might have been “factually” responsive to the plaintiffs’ FOIA request, it was “legally nonresponsive.” Id. at 9, n. 4 (emphasis added).
The court noted, this “argument is indefensible,” id. at 9-10, and held, “the FOIA does not permit the government to withhold responsive information from the court.” (Id.)(upheld on appeal in Islamic Shura Council of S. Cal. v. FBI, __ F.3d __, No. 09-56035, at 4280-81 (9th Cir. Mar. 30, 2011) (“Shura Council II”).1 The court stated:
The Government argues that there are times when the interests of national security require the Government to mislead the Court. The Court strongly disagrees. The Government’s duty of honesty to the Court can never be excused, no matter what the circumstance. The Court is charged with the humbling task of defending the Constitution and ensuring that the Government does not falsely accuse people, needlessly invade their privacy or wrongfully deprive them of their liberty. The Court simply cannot perform this important task if the Government lies to it. Deception perverts justice. Truth always promotes it.
(Shura Council I at 17) (emphasis added). This is an important opinion for FOIA requesters because sometimes the only protection a FOIA requester has from the government's potentially arbitrary withholding of information is a court's in camera review of the full versions of documents. If the government were allowed to withhold information from the court, this protection would be meaningless and the role of judicial oversight in FOIA cases would be compromised.
Unfortunately for the plaintiffs in Shura Council, this seems to be a hollow victory. Although the court did not restrain itself from using the strongest possible language to criticize the government’s actions (calling the FBI’s arguments “untenable,” id. at 3, “indefensible,” id. at 10, and “not credible” id. at 17) it also held that “disclosing the number and nature of the documents the Government possesses could reasonably be expected to compromise national security.” Id. 18. Therefore it did not order the government to release the records to the plaintiffs or even to reveal how many records turned up in the second search. And on appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that neither the plaintiffs nor their attorneys had the right to see the original version of the district court’s order (filed under seal) because it contained information the FBI considered to be “national security and sensitive law enforcement information.” (Shura Council II at 4286).
It seems unlikely that, five years after the plaintiffs filed their FOIA request, the release of the information the FBI has on these individuals and organizations would truly threaten national security or an ongoing criminal investigation. None of the plaintiffs appears to have been arrested or retained in conjunction with a crime or foreign terrorist plot, so it seems more likely that this is yet another example of the government valuing secrecy over transparency.
UPDATE (November 21, 2011): In a later opinion, the district court sanctioned the government for lying. In issuing monetary sanctions against the DOJ, the court held, "the Government’s deception of the Court was without any factual or legal basis and simply wrong." (p. 19). The court noted issuing sanctions was necessary to "deter the Government from deceiving the Court again." (p. 2). Unfortunately, it's not clear this practice will end any time soon. The DOJ has been attempting to change its FOIA regulations to codify the procedures it used in this case. As the court noted, even though the proposed changes were withdrawn, "the deceptive policy and practice of the DOJ with respect to asserting and applying exclusions under FOIA apparently remains intact." (p. 19).
- 1. This case has a convoluted procedural history. When the district court discovered the FBI’s lies it issued an order under seal on June 23, 2009 and told the parties it would unseal the order on July 7, 2009 unless further directed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The government immediately appealed, and the Ninth Circuit issued a stay of the district court’s ruling until it could hear the case. On March 30, 2011, the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Islamic Shura Council of S. Cal. v. FBI, __ F.3d __, No. 09-56035 (9th Cir. Mar. 30, 2011), vacating the district court’s sealed order and remanding to the district court to revise its order to eliminate statements the government had designated as national security and sensitive law enforcement information. On April 27, 2011, the district court issued its revised order.