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FBI must search more, drop privacy claims in bombing case

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   UTAH   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   May 10, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   UTAH   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   May 10, 2005

FBI must search more, drop privacy claims in bombing case

  • The FBI cannot claim that certain records pertaining to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing do not exist when its search was so cursory as to be unreasonable, a federal trial court ruled last week.

May 10, 2005  ·   The FBI’s fruitless computer search for Freedom of Information Act-requested documents that could allegedly link a white supremacist group with the Oklahoma City bombings fell short of its statutory obligations, a federal trial court in Utah ruled Thursday. The court, which ordered the agency to search its paper files, also ordered full release of other documents improperly redacted for privacy reasons.

Four months after the death of Utah lawyer Jesse C. Trentadue’s brother’s — deemed a suicide by government officials — Trentadue says an anonymous phone caller told him that his brother had been killed by the FBI during an interrogation. The caller said the agency mistook him for a member of the “Mid-West Robbery Gang,”a white supremacist organization that had been the subject of a pre-bombing agency investigation.

“I’m trying to prove the fact that my brother was murdered by the FBI because they believed he was . . . an accomplice of Timothy McVeigh,” Trentadue told National Public Radio. Trentadue has already won more than a million dollars in federal court in a wrongful death lawsuit.

During his investigation into his brother’s death, Trentadue began to suspect that the FBI had advance knowledge of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after he learned that McVeigh had visited an agency-monitored white supremacist compound prior to the attack. A heavily-redacted 1996 memorandum written by then-FBI Director Louis Freeh suggested the possible presence of an informant who was reporting information about McVeigh to the FBI well before the bombing.

Trentadue made FOI Act requests to the FBI for an unredacted copy of the Freeh memorandum, other documents linking the white supremacist group to McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, and a report detailing an interview he had had with the FBI in December 1995 concerning his brother’s death.

The FBI said that it searched computer records and that the documents sought did not exist. It also refused to yield on the Freeh memorandum privacy redactions.

Trentadue sued, arguing that the FBI’s search was inadequate because at least one of the “nonexistent” documents — a report detailing his own interview with the agency — had to exist.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball agreed that “it is simply not credible that an FBI agent and federal prosecutors would travel from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City to speak with plaintiff and not document the interview” such that the requested record is nonexistent. Given Trentadue’s “specific evidence that at least some of the requested documents do exist,” the court said, the FBI must review its actual files for any requested documents its computer search failed to find.

Kimball also overruled the FBI’s privacy-based redactions of the names of government officials and informants on the Freeh memorandum and other documents. “To the extent that the court is required to apply a balancing test” to gauge the legality of those privacy-based name redactions, the public’s interest in knowing the information outweighs the interest of the individuals in keeping such information confidential,” the court ruled.

The FBI must complete its court-ordered search and turn over unredacted documents to Trentadue by June 15, the judge said.

(Trentadue v. Federal Bureau of Investigation; Requester Counsel: Jesse C. Trentadue; Salt Lake City)RL

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