FBI Redacts Letter About Drone Usage That Was Already Published In Full By Sen. Rand Paul

from the redaction-by-random-number-generator dept

The government’s overclassification problem has turned its redaction efforts into a farce. When not deploying questionable exceptions to avoid returning responsive documents to FOIA requests, government agencies are cranking out amateurishly redacted pages that leave info exposed in one response and covered up in the next. No wonder they fear the “mosaic” approach to FOIA requests. If they’d just come up with some meaningful redaction guidelines, they could avoid this. Instead, things like the following bit of stupidity happen.

When outgoing director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee last July that the FBI was in the “initial stages” of developing guidelines for its drone program, a handful of privacy hawks in Congress perked up and requested more details. The FBI released correspondence with three members of Congress—Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX)—in its latest bundle. Paul had already posted in full the FBI’s answers to questions about the scope and purpose of domestic UAV surveillance, but FBI FOIA officers still saw fit to sanitize them.

Here are the two versions of the same document, with the legislator’s clean copy up top and the needlessly redacted version sent to Muckrock below it.


The FBI can’t even keep track of what it’s already sent out in unredacted form, making a mockery of its own paranoiac “but for criminals/terrorism” tendencies. What makes this even more ridiculous is that the inverse happened just a couple of weeks ago, when Tom Coburn called out the DHS for producing drone documents to Congress that were more heavily redacted than the ones it supplied in response to an EFF FOIA request (which were also rather heavily redacted).

For 2010 alone, my staff has tallied at least 20 instances in which the publicly-released documents appear to contain legible passages which are redacted entirely or in large part from the documents DHS provided the Committee. In other words, DHS appears to have chosen to withhold information from Congress which the DOJ — and, we must assume, DHS — has determined was appropriate to share with the American public.

Why these agencies even bother redacting anything at this point is inexplicable. There’s obviously no rationale behind what gets released and what gets withheld. It’s apparently an arbitrary decision made by each individual employee tasked with handling responses to outside queries. The stated concerns about “security” are obviously a sham. The public already has the information they’re choosing to redact, which instantly nullifies any justifications given for the redactions.

If the redactions are essentially meaningless, than every redaction should be challenged. We can’t see what’s behind the black ink and whiteout, so we’re expected to assume the info is “sensitive.” But it obviously isn’t if it can be revealed elsewhere without the security of the nation collapsing. The truth appears to be that no one in charge of redacting documents has any real idea what the fuck they’re doing. That calls into question many of the efforts being made in the name of national security, something made even more depressing when you consider the exponential growth of that area of the government over the last 12 years.

Who watches the watchers? Well, we do. And what we’re seeing is a bumbling display of ineptitude, propelled by an outsized sense of paranoia — a bureaucratic farce where the right hand is completely unaware the left hand even exists, much less has any earthly idea what it’s up to.



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Comments on “FBI Redacts Letter About Drone Usage That Was Already Published In Full By Sen. Rand Paul”

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25 Comments
pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

How's that feel Senator?

“appears to have chosen to withhold information from Congress which the DOJ — and, we must assume, DHS — has determined was appropriate to share with the American public”

We ‘the public’ have the same problem when *you* get information and it’s deemed ‘we’ aren’t allowed the same access.

Erik Grant says:

While the process should be standardized with sane guidelines, I think the above redactions are absolutely not without merit. It’s completely reasonable for the FBI to want to withhold operational details of drone usage to better leverage them against home-grown nutjobs and terrorists. I think encouraging oversight would be a better solution, rather than apparently advocating the elimination of all redactions.

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

This shows why oversight is an overrated as a way to protect the public.

I am just posting questions.

How can we be sure the people that oversee the FBI in an elected role are able to see what they need to make intelligent decisions??

How can we the people be sure that those people that seek to protect us are doing so in the best interest of us the people without effective disclosure?

So dumb question, but…How can we trust an agency to effectively protect us when they can’t do something so simple as coordinate their message and lies?

Lies, Lies, and Damn Lies. There is a reason someone once said “The Truth will set you free”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Reminds me for all the world of a little boy standing there with his fingers in his ears hollering NaNaNaNa.

There is no consistency in dealing with FOIA in one agency office much less all of government. This same sort of idea that plugging your ears equals it doesn’t exist was shown off in all its spender when Wikileaks showed the world some of those diplomatic secrets, when the Manning documents went out, and during the Snowden leaks. Blocking sites to prevent their own employees from reading about current world events that made them look bad in the eyes of the public. Yet those same employees could go home, get on their own private internet connections and read all about it.

Yeah, that made a lot of sense.

any moose cow word says:

The redaction here is rather ironic. The public might actually support UAVs for those kinds of task, such as finding lost children. Yet, the FBI most likely redacted those details because they didn’t support the “war on terror” rhetoric they’ve been selling. However, the public isn’t buying the rhetoric as much theses days, it’s been oversold for far too long without any real domestic threat. Unfortunately, it’s distracting the FBI from it’s real job, where UAVs could be a valuable asset. But the rhetoric has made the pubic associate UAVs with weaponized military drones, it’s putting their use for unweaponized task that the FBI should be focusing on in jeopardy.

zip says:

Isn’t the main point of redactions to maintain an aire of secrecy to keep the public at arm’s distance from learning about all the idiocy, waste and screwups that federal agencies are notorious for?

As well as keeping a lid on public expectations: if people started getting ANY un-redacted documents under FOIA, they might start expecting more — or heaven forbid, start questioning the very need for these redactions in the first place?

Anonymous Coward says:

FBI Not Paranoid

You are crying paranoia here and It doesn’t really seem to be the case. The document offers an interesting insight into the inferences one could gather by the definitive descriptions taken from the full document, and the redacted document that clearly attempts to stand down from an allout constriction of its drone program usage by letter of the origional document. It is very interesting to see the mentality in force here.

The higher ups would definitely not want to be seen as overstepping the outlined, stated public use and capability for its drone program, but neither to be later restricted by this statement of its intent. This must have been redacted by a lawyer on the team with some mighty proactive conceptualizations of its future.

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