Strong public interest requires release of old FBI files
PENNSYLVANIA–Passage of time and a strong public interest in “illuminating government operations and exposing possible misconduct” outweigh privacy interests of individuals named in old FBI files collected on the Workers Alliance of America, a federal District Court in Pittsburgh ruled in early April.
The court, reconsidering the case after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3d Cir.) remanded it in 1995, rejected the government’s contention that disclosure of the information — mostly collected in the 1930s and 1940s — would pose an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. It noted that many of the individuals must have died and most addresses must be outdated. But even the privacy interests of living individuals who can be traced through the disclosures would be outweighed by the public’s interest in the records, the court said.
The ruling means that University of Pittsburgh doctoral candidate Eric Davin will receive names and addresses of 36 individuals from files created primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. Davin first filed a FOI request in 1986 for records of the WAA and its former leader David Lasser, who was investigated into the 1970s.
In 1992, six years after filing his request, Davin changed the topic of his dissertation, but he continues to write about the WAA, which was widely accused of being a communist front organization.
He sued for the records in 1992 in the federal District Court in Pittsburgh, which ruled for the government, saying that most of the records were exempt under privacy and confidential source arms of the FOI Act’s law enforcement exemption.
Davin appealed and the appeals panel told the District Court to reconsider the FBI’s boilerplate denials, which it said did not adequately describe the withheld records or the government’s reasons for withholding them.
According to Davin, the FBI’s 10,000 pages on the WAA and Lasser constitute the only existing archive of records on the labor organization, which represented interests of thousands of persons out of work in the 1930s and 1940s and was a major influence on the Works Progress Administration.
The FBI files include detailed notes and summaries of meetings and other activities filed by undercover agents, organizational brochures, transcriptions of wiretaps and intercepted mail, he said.
Davin obtained copies of most of the WAA records after the Court of Appeals ruling. Lasser, who is in his 90s, had waived his privacy interests in the records.
The lower court allowed the FBI to withhold records of sources deemed confidential if they had been given express promises of confidentiality, stated they would not talk except confidentially, or understood, by virtue of their employment by government or financial institutions, that conversations with FBI agents would remain confidential.
However, Davin already had received many records initially withheld to protect confidential sources. The appeals panel had ruled in 1995 that the government could not claim a law enforcement exemption to protect purely political investigations. It said it doubted the legitimacy of a law enforcement purpose in the files, some of which spanned periods as long as 40 years without “a single arrest, indictment or conviction.” (Davin v. Department of Justice; Counsel: David Lynch, Pittsburgh)