by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
eff, fbi, freedom of information, redactions

eff, fbi

FBI Almost Entirely Arbitrary In Redacting Info On Freedom Of Information Requests

from the transparency dept

The officials rules from the Obama Administration, when it comes to Freedom of Information requests, is that the default view should be the transparent one. In practice, we've seen exactly the opposite. Studies have shown that the Obama Administration has turned down FOIA requests at a greater rate than the previous administration (which was already pretty damn secretive) and often uses political reasons, rather than genuine secrecy reasons to hide information (for example, claiming ACTA had to be secret for national security reasons).

The EFF (which the administration has highlighted internally as an organization deserving more political scrutiny before documents can be released to it) has now pointed out that it appears that the FBI has extremely arbitrary standards for figuring out what to redact when complying with FOIA requests. Specifically, the EFF asked for multiple documents on two separate occasions and was amazed to find that the redactions were entirely different -- even if the reasons for the redactions were the same:
Through a careful comparison of thousands of pages of documents we received from this FOIA request with the same documents we received from an earlier FOIA request, we found that redactions in many of these duplicated documents were strikingly different. In several cases, the FBI redacted more information in later-produced documents than it did in earlier-produced documents. In other cases, the FBI redacted differing amounts of information when it produced two copies of the same report in response to the same FOIA request. Sometimes the agency blocked out whole paragraphs, while at other times it blocked out only the key words that explain the details of its acts. What is interesting is that the FBI claimed the same FOIA exemptions in each version; it just applied them differently.
What's most troubling is that the documents in question had to do with evidence of the FBI's own misconduct. So, if it's being arbitrary in figuring out what to redact, what's to stop it from just redacting the information it doesn't want to get out? The EFF page discussing this has some funky "slider" functionality that lets you look at the two different versions of redacted documents to see how the redactions appear to change quite arbitrarily. As the EFF notes, there might be less public demand for things like Wikileaks if the US government wasn't so secretive in such an arbitrary manner.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 10th, 2010 @ 4:19pm

    Oh no! The FBI has more than one person doing redaction, and sometimes their opinion of things are different.

    The glass is always half empty around here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 10th, 2010 @ 4:32pm


    Are you making a joke? FoIA redactions or refusals are not supposed to be based on opinions, but on clearly justified explanations. What the EFF discovered is that's not happening.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 10th, 2010 @ 4:34pm


    You sir are wrong, the glass is always full

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 10th, 2010 @ 4:39pm


    Secrecy good! Transparency bad!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Norm (profile), Dec 10th, 2010 @ 5:20pm

    Another thing that I find interesting is the inherent inefficiency that is displayed here. Why are they redacting the same document multiple times? Once a document is redacted (properly), I don't see why they don't store the redacted copy for future use. Surely the cost of storage is less than paying for it to be done for every FoIA request.

    FBI: 1) redact things properly and 2) Do it ONCE

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    The eejit (profile), Dec 11th, 2010 @ 1:06am


    Because it's sensible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 11th, 2010 @ 6:14am

    Allowing redaction on FOIA documents is a joke. Either it's freedom of information or not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Michael, Dec 11th, 2010 @ 8:20am


    Government agencies have resented these information requests since they began, up here in Canada they just arbitrarily deny many for no good reason the first couple times they are requested, and even have a law about "too many requests" from any person or organisation as "nuisance" requests which can result in a fine. They simply just do not like honoring the requests and make it as difficult as possible to get the information.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 13th, 2010 @ 9:20am

    Re: Re:


    It's just not always full of liquid, sometimes it's 50% liquid, 50% air, sometimes it's 100% liquid, 0% air, sometimes it's even 0% liquid, 100% air....

    But we can definitively say that the glass is always FULL (of something anyway).... where does BS fit into the above scenario, as there is usually some of that floating around as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    DougBuchanan.com, Dec 13th, 2010 @ 10:11pm

    Arbitrary government actions

    The explanation is in a government power-damaged mind's inability to understand the human mind's reasoning process. When it is not faced with a recognizable threat, but perceives that a threat exists because a question is being asked, it can ONLY (verifiable) produce an arbitrary or confused response, manifesting its imperative to defend its power from an illusion.

    But the EFF folks who discovered this result the inefficient way, exhibit some of the same qualities by not using the information itself, to ask certain effective questions that would effect the FBI being unable to escape a resolution on public record (resolve the contradiction), to the extent that the entire concept of government secrecy could be openly jeopardized, much to the amusement of thinking people.

    Respectfully, DougBuchanan.com

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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