How The FBI's Dysfunctional Search Systems Keep Information Out Of FOIA Requesters' Hands

from the what-part-of-'search-your-records'-are-you-purposefully-not-understandin dept

Thanks to yet another FOIA lawsuit, more evidence is being produced that suggests certain federal agencies employ labyrinthine systems that seem deliberately designed to keep requesters as far away as possible from responsive documents.

Trentadue v. FBI deals with the release (or lack thereof) of videotapes containing footage of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Four days of oral testimony has at least partially exposed the search methods used by the FBI, which the agency uses as convenient information silos, rather than treat their central database as a cohesive whole. Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press points out that this “system” often leads to unfulfilled or partially-filled requests. FOIA requesters are often not aware that the FBI will do a half-assed job unless led by the nose through each of its databases and document systems. (via Unredacted)

The latest testimony from the Trentadue case shows that reporters and members of the public who send FOIA requests to the FBI might not know that there are a myriad of different records “systems” that they need to specify in order for a comprehensive search to take place. They might not know that the FBI typically only searches for the location of the main file related to an investigation as reported to headquarters, so reporters should also request cross-references, which are mentions of the subject of their request in investigations outside of the main file. While field offices have FOIA-trained personnel to assist RIDS (Records Information Dissemination System), reporters should also send FOIA requests directly to individual field offices they think are relevant to the investigation, because RIDS may only request documents from the field office associated with the main file.

On top of that, the FBI utilizes an obviously misnamed Central Records System (CRS) when responding to FOIA requests. Despite the name’s suggestion that it a central repository of FBI records, it actually isn’t — not because the database doesn’t contain the most of the records the FBI has compiled, but because it can be searched using three different methods, all of which will return different sets of documents. The “Automated Case Support” (ACS) is the tool used to search the CRS, but that search isn’t unified.

The FBI’s Central Records System (CRS) contains the “universe of records” the FBI has acquired in its law enforcement operations. According to trial testimony in the Trentadue case, the Automated Case Support system (“ACS”) searches the CRS, and the ACS is split into three components: the Investigative Case Management system (“ICM”), the Electronic Case File (“ECF”), and the Universal Index (“UNI”).

The ICM is a case management tool for documents involved in an ongoing investigation. The ECF is broader and contains all FBI law enforcement documents uploaded to the CRS except for some aged documents, or documents not uploaded for unknown reasons. Importantly, the ECF searches the text of the documents themselves.

The FBI revealed in court that requesters basically need to know the systems as intimately as responding agents do if they expect to receive the entirety of what they’re seeking. In Trentadue v. FBI, the FBI limited its search to UNI, rather than utilize the ECF, which would have found more documents thanks to its search of document text. The FBI told the court that its default method for FOIA responses is the more-limited UNI search and that it won’t perform more thorough searches using other methods unless specifically asked to by the requester.

Not only that, but the FBI will decide what keywords to use when searching the database, unless required to do otherwise by the text of the request.

Testimony revealed that the one search of the CRS was made using the generic UNI keyword “OKBOMB,” even though there was a wide range of keywords that could have been used in a text-based ECF search.

That’s only one part of the FBI’s FOIA obfuscation efforts. MuckRock’s Shawn Musgrave points out that the FBI will often refuse to perform an extensive search until sued by the requester. Even worse, when knowledgable requesters have specified an ECF search, the FBI will sometimes refuse to follow this instruction.

And there’s more to it than simply using the least-responsive search method by default. There’s also evidence suggesting the FBI is keeping information out of requesters’ hand by preventing the documents from being added to the Central Records System in the first place.

John Solomon of the Associated Press in 2004 documented the existence of so-called “I-Drives” used by the FBI, which were file-sharing drives used in the course of case management but which defense lawyers said could be used to withhold evidence. Testimony showed that the I-Drives have been replaced by “S-Drives,” which serve essentially the same function. Trentadue alleges the FBI failed to search S-Drives for records responsive to his FOIA request.

Finally, as if the previous information uncovered during oral testimony wasn’t damning enough, this case is on hold as the court examines witness tampering claims against the FBI, which allegedly instructed a former agent not to testify at this trial. Apparently, even the FBI’s former personnel can’t be “searched” properly for information, not even by the courts.

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Comments on “How The FBI's Dysfunctional Search Systems Keep Information Out Of FOIA Requesters' Hands”

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Michael (profile) says:

As someone who has been involved in searching systems for the FBI, this is really ridiculous. They required exhaustive searches of all systems and documentation about them relating to every request specifically so they could be sure individual systems were not missed.

When they search their own systems, they basically click on the desktop search icon and when nothing is returned they assume they are done.

David says:

If the FBI can't find their own files

Doesn’t just the fact that that FBI can’t search for things tells us 1 of 2 possibilities:

1) They are intentionally hiding information, which means they have gone rogue and are conspiring to violate the law.

2) They are incompetent at managing information in support of their charter as an investigatory entity.

ahow628 (profile) says:

Feature? Bug? Worse?

Depending on who you are, being non-responsive can be seen as a feature or a bug. That’s “fine” or whatever when you are talking about requests for documents for news reporting or other not-as-time-sensitive stuff. (It isn’t fine, but let’s disregard that for the moment)

My main concern would be whether this is the same system they use for searching during actual, pressing investigations. It would be very disturbing if in the course of investigating something like the OKC bombing they missed connections and evidence because they were doing these same sorts of half-assed queries.

Heck, who knows – maybe that is a feature, not a bug, as well.

Wickedsmack (profile) says:

Perhaps I am...uneducated

I need the wisdom of the posters of the site to help me with a question I have been struggling with again and again. How are the people clearly doing things that they aren’t supposed to do (like oh I don’t know, not answering FIOA requests), sue to copyright PUBLIC INFORMATION (Mayors that don’t want to get caught doing things that are shady) and Politicians never really given any sort of punishment? There seems to be a recurring theme of FU, I’m the government I can do what I want. Aren’t they accoutable for their actions? I don’t mean to sound like a naive idiot, but damn, if I decided to do what I want like that I would be unemployed, single, and have to have supervised visits with my kids. Somebody please explain this to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Perhaps I am...uneducated

bread and circuses keep the masses complacent.

Look at the rome and the death games they held to distract the population from how shitty things actually were.

Once welfare stops and the tv goes down, then the dumb people will riot. The more intelligent people are vastly outnumbered at this point by the complacent masses. Those that try to change things are shouted down as lunatics or conspiracy theorists.

Most people do not care about what the government does to their neighbor until it happens to them by that point it is too late.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Perhaps I am...uneducated

Look up the word Fascism, but ignore any remarks that label it as a political movement. Its a business venture plain and simple.

Its what happens to a government once its been infiltrated and repurposed by Tycoons, Mafiosa, Drug Lords, Royal Rich, and International Billionaires, for fun and profit, by running it like a Mob or Corporate Business Asset.

Once Fascism is fully established as the new Government in Office, its members can no longer be held accountable for their actions because the laws no longer apply to them.

In the current US case, this was accomplished by secretly rewriting the meanings of the words of specific laws and of the constitution to place themselves above and outside the reach and jurisdiction of the laws of the land that pertain to the other paying citizens of the land.

By fielding the false flag operation now known as 911, they created a make-believe invisible enemy of the state which must be combatted by the state, allowing the state to enter War Measures Conditions, which trumps peace time laws and lets them reinterpret legal meanings, legally.

The general public believes the government chose the words “War On” because it sounded macho, but the government knows that its War Labeling creates a very real condition and carries very real legal benefits.

Their obvious arrogance and their blatant disregard for the public and the courts, is because they no longer fear the law because the new War-Time interpretation of the laws makes their actions free of legal consequence.

In other words, They Are the Law, as long as the War on Terror/Drugs continues, and there is absolutely no end in sight for either War and neither can ever be actually won, because those in power have no desire to end the incredible legal benefits these Wars On Things bestow upon the rulers.

ms freeh says:

The FBI is currently being sued by
Salt Lake City attorney Jesse Trentadue
to turn over the Oklahoma City bombing videos they
took from survelliance cameras facing the Murragh building.

The FBI has refused to hand over all the videotapes.

FBI agent Quirk just threatened a witness
who was to testify.

Sounds like the FBI now has plausible denial
thanks to this story.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

If they are unable to produce responsive documents, perhaps we should question their ability to manage case files.
If their system is so convoluted, serious questions need to be asked about all of their investigations.
All this information is the same, yet only magically only that which would answer a FOIA request is not found?
Given the totally inept of data handling we have seen over and over, I think the DOJ should, in the interests of Justice, suspend all FBI based case sin the legal system until they can solve this problem to make sure all of the documents required by law are being turned over to the defense and the public.

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