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FBI releases thousands of pages to San Francisco Chronicle

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NINTH CIRCUIT         Freedom of Information         Jun 13, 2002    

FBI releases thousands of pages to San Francisco Chronicle

  • A federal appeals court honored a Freedom of Information Act request filed 17 years ago by a University of California student, revealing that the FBI overextended its authority during the Vietnam War era.

Culminating years of document analysis and independent investigation, the San Francisco Chronicle on June 8 published findings from more than 200,000 pages of FBI records, the result of one of the largest disclosures of bureau documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents that emerged after a 17-year legal battle detailed how former Gov. Ronald Reagan and the FBI meddled in University of California-Berkeley politics.

Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld was a journalism student at UC-Berkeley almost two decades ago when he filed the FOI Act request for “any and all” records on large groups of people involved in university-related controversies over academic freedom, civil rights and national policy. A federal appeals court ordered many of the records disclosed in 1995, ruling that the FBI could not claim an exemption protecting national security because it had acted beyond its national-security jurisdiction and had come “to focus on political rather than law enforcement aims.”

Several of the documents were published online and printed in the paper, along with accounts of Reagan’s close ties with the FBI and the bureau’s investigation of campus activists and administrators. The documents show Reagan orchestrated a “psychological warfare campaign” against campus “malcontents and filthy speech advocates,” and tried to oust university President Clark Kerr from office.

When the FBI refused to comply with Rosenfeld’s FOI Act request in a timely manner, so a lengthy legal battle ensued. The dispute reached all the way to the Supreme Court before a federal appeals court ordered in 1995 for the release of records involving free speech at UC-Berkeley from 1940 to the 1970s.

According to the Chronicle , the FBI spent $1 million over the course of 15 years suppressing the documents, which were individually redacted as they were gradually released. FBI officials blacked out much of the information in the documents before turning them over, an ongoing process since the 1995 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.). The agency said deletions were necessary for security concerns, such as protecting law-enforcement operations.

But U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of San Francisco said in an earlier ruling: “The records in this case go (to) the very essence of what the government was up to during a turbulent, historic period of time.”

(Rosenfeld v. FBI; Media counsel: Thomas Steel, San Francisco) CL

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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