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FBI will investigate agency treatment of reporter's FOI request

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

FBI will investigate agency treatment of reporter’s FOI request

  • After San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld published stories of FBI activities in California under then-director J. Edgar Hoover, the current FOI director responded to a senator that similar activities would not occur today and that he would investigate agency recalcitrance in filling Rosenfeld’s FOI requests.

Feb. 20, 2003 — FBI Director Robert Mueller has opened two internal investigations at the agency to determine whether the agency improperly withheld records from San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld who has pursued FBI records since 1981 regarding FBI surveillance and harassment of professors and students at the University of California during the Cold War and still has not received all the records due him.

In a lengthy letter from Mueller to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) which she released to the Chronicle this month, he also said that the FBI’s actions were “wrong and anti-democratic” and pledged that they would not be repeated. Feinstein wrote Mueller of her “deep concern” about wide-ranging abuses at the University by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI detailed in a series by Rosenfeld published in the Chronicle in June.

Mueller also wrote that he has taken steps to address her concerns that the FBI “may have acted inappropriately” in handling Rosenfeld’s FOI requests. He said he had asked the general counsel to determine whether the FBI pursed litigation in order to prevent or delay release of records to which Rosenfeld was entitled. He also asked the records management division to determine if material was redacted in order to shield the FBI from embarrassment or cover up unlawful activities.

In the more than two decades Rosenfeld spent trying to obtain access to these records, he filed three law suits which he said have led to rulings by five federal judges that the documents should be released. Rosenfeld said the FBI would always appeal the courts’ decisions.

In 1995 the government threatened to take a Rosenfeld case to the U.S. Supreme Court after the court of appeals in San Francisco ordered records released. However, before the matter went before the high court Rosenfeld made an agreement with the FBI that the bureau would release more than 200,000 pages of documents over a period of years.

The Chronicle has since written a number of stories based on the records. On June 9 the Chronicle described how the FBI covertly campaigned to get rid of the university’s president Clark Kerr because bureau officials disliked his political views and campus policies.

Feinstein the wrote to Mueller seeking assurance that the FBI had abandoned such activities. In Mueller’s letter to Feinstein, he said the FBI will not return to such “inappropriate activities” because of the “comprehensive oversight apparatus and legal limitations that currently govern the conduct of domestic intelligence operations.”

He cited the attorney’s general guidelines, congressional oversight, internal bureau review boards and the Freedom of Information Act.

However, Rosenfeld said there have been a great number of complaints by reporters about government noncompliance with the FOI Act. He said the government must be accountable to the public.

“I am still waiting for the FBI to release thousands more pages of documents they were supposed to release years ago under a court order,” he said.

Rosenfeld noted that Mueller’s statements came amidst a national debate over the balance between expanding police powers to fight terrorism and protecting civil liberties.

Of Mueller’s investigations into the bureau’s handling of his FOI requests, Rosenfeld said,

“These records are decades old. He said it is puzzling why the FBI failed to release them.

He also said that Mueller has admitted to Feinstein that, years after the FBI has agreed to release the records, there are still more than 17,000 pages yet to be disclosed.

“When an issue arises about the nation’s most powerful police agencies and one of its largest universities, the public has a right to know,” Rosenfeld said.

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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