FOIA Heroes At The FBI Protect Superman's Privacy; Refuse To Hand Over Secret Identity To Requester

from the ol'-FBI-FOIA-FU dept

Following an FOIA lawsuit against the FBI, Emma Best is raking in agency documents dealing with the Church of Scientology. The FBI doesn’t care much for FOIA requesters and the informal policy on handling released documents is to redact as much as possible and hope the redactions aren’t challenged.

Sadly, there’s not much subtlety or attention to detail deployed when redacting documents prior to release. It appears that the FBI’s FOIA response personnel are trained to redact anything that looks like a person’s name, whether or not it actually needs to be redacted. This almost-automatic redaction technique has led to the most ridiculous of results: the FBI has engaged in the proactive protection of Superman’s secret identity.

Included in a batch of Scientology docs is a letter [PDF] to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. This was apparently sent to steer the DA’s office away from investigating complaints about the Church’s overzealous pursuit of former members and critics. The letter attempts to paint a former member as some sort of crazy person pushing ridiculous conspiracy theories via an affidavit being circulated to press and law enforcement.

The letter claims “Wally” (a pseudonym given by the Church) is attempting to “cash in on the popularity” of Scientology with a narrative containing so much “comic book flair” the letter’s author decided to include a short vignette of the affidavit being reviewed by a mild-mannered reporter at the offices of his employer, The Daily Planet.

This faux screenplay underwent FBI FOIA surgery, redacting the full names of every fictional character (although Jimmy Olsen’s surname does slip through once). The end result looks for all the world as though the FBI truly felt Superman’s secret identity needed to be withheld for privacy reasons.

Here’s the opening of the short scene, featuring its very famous — and very fake — setting.

As MuckRock’s J. Pat Brown points out, we can be sure it is Clark Kent/Superman (rather than reporter Lois Lane) underneath the redactions because of this unredacted “Mr.”

Emma Best, in a statement to Gizmodo, points out this farcical set of redactions is, at best, a demonstration of the FBI’s apparently willful incompetence when it comes to FOIA response.

There are no explanations for this aside from gross incompetence, negligence, and/or bad faith. Even if this were an innocent mistake, the slightest amount of due diligence and research would have shown that the Daily Planet is fictional. Admiral Hardy’s FOIA staff at FBI couldn’t be bothered.

When you’re only begrudgingly engaging in your statutory responsibilities, these things happen and all names — even the fictional ones — are lazily withheld under privacy exemptions that can’t possibly apply.

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Comments on “FOIA Heroes At The FBI Protect Superman's Privacy; Refuse To Hand Over Secret Identity To Requester”

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Anonymous Coward says:

by the book

I feel sorry for the lowly grunt that did the redacting, who will now likely get in heaps of trouble. Not for failing to recognize a an obvious Superman script and thereby making a laughingstock out of the FBI, but for accidently leaking the name of one of the characters in the story who could have conceivably been a real person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: by the book

No. I think they automated the redacting process. There are some decent redacting programs available that make redacting far more efficient. Upload a bunch of documents. Run the software. Download a a bunch of redacted PDFs. It was probably set to find all sensitive information; names, phone numbers, credit card numbers, licenses numbers, etc. Then just manually redact anything the software missed or was to difficult to make a variable for. Makes the job much faster. Why waste even more time going back and un-redacting fictional names when already told to redact all names. It would be too difficult to make a reliable variable that would only redact real names.

Anonymous Coward says:

About the redactions

If you’re wondering, “b6” is the exemption for “Personnel and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

b7C is the exemption for “Records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information… Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”.

I don’t think anyone can claim with a straight face that this could “clearly” or “reasonably” be expected to invade anyone’s privacy.

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