Prolific FOIA Requester Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of FOIA Law By Suing FBI Over Its Document Search Methods

from the lawsuit-not-so-much-'ironic'-as-it-is-'inevitable' dept

No better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act than filing a lawsuit claiming an agency is refusing to comply with it. FOIA enthusiast Ryan Shapiro has done exactly that, suing the DOJ [PDF] for the FBI's continued refusal to perform anything more than a cursory search, using its most outdated software, for responsive records.

Foia requests to the FBI are processed by searching the Automated Case Support system (ACS), a software program that celebrates its 21st birthday this year.

Not only are the records indexed by ACS allegedly inadequate, Shapiro told the Guardian, but the FBI refuses to search the full text of those records as a matter of policy. When few or no records are returned, Shapiro said, the FBI effectively responds “sorry, we tried” without making use of the much more sophisticated search tools at the disposal of internal requestors.

“The FBI’s assertion is akin to suggesting that a search of a limited and arbitrarily produced card catalogue at a vast library is as likely to locate book pages containing a specified search term as a full text search of database containing digitized versions of all the books in that library,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro went meta to prove this point. Along with a handful of requests for documents about the FBI's "mosaic" theory, Shapiro also requested processing notes on the requests themselves. The FBI "failed" to locate much in the way of responsive documents, thanks to its insistence on using 21-year-old software, rather than more modern tools it has at its disposal.

The DOJ -- despite using millions of tax dollars to fund better search tools -- continues to insist it only needs to perform the bare minimum when searching for responsive documents. The software old enough to buy its own booze only searches for terms entered by FBI agents handling cases, not the text included in the files themselves.

It's not that the DOJ doesn't have the capability to perform a more in-depth search. It just feels it doesn't have to do anything more than a cursory surface scan for responsive documents. Whatever fails to turn up in this search is withheld without actually having to be declared "withheld" and justified with a FOIA exemption. Rather than present FOIA requesters with something they can challenge in court, the FBI simply claims it performed a search and shrugs at the lack of responsive files.

This non-responsiveness didn't impress Judge Randolph Moss back in January and it's that decision Shapiro is hoping will help him prevail in this lawsuit.

The FBI's use of an outdated system -- seemingly solely for the purpose of generating as few responsive files as possible -- is well-documented. And yet, there's almost no way to force the FBI to perform thorough searches -- utilizing the multiple tools and databases it has access to -- without dragging the DOJ to court. The FBI knows this, and knows that its unwillingness to utilize its internal FOIA tools is an easy way to discourage FOIA requests, as there are only a few filers with the means to pursue a lawsuit against the government. And any decision by a judge ordering the FBI to perform a more thorough search will be taken by the agency as only applying to the case at hand.

Of course, the FBI will do anything it can to keep Shapiro from obtaining more documents. Shapiro is the FBI's "mosaic" theory defined. The agency seems to fear his ability to pull together information from multiple, overlapping requests. And the DOJ has gone so far as to claim his dissertation research (involving the government's handling of animal rights activists) is a threat to national security. So, it will continue fighting for its "right" to deliberately perform inadequate document searches and maintain its non-responsive status quo.


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 19 Jul 2016 @ 3:58am

    Shapiro went meta to prove this point. Along with a handful of requests for documents about the FBI's "mosaic" theory, Shapiro also requested processing notes on the requests themselves.

    Only loosely related to the article, but given hypocrisy is always worth pointing out it's worth pointing out the double-standards in play here with the FBI's claim and defense they present.

    When it comes to FOIA'ing government documents they claim that even otherwise 'harmless' pieces and datapoints can be harmful and invasive when you get enough of them and put them together.

    When it comes to collecting information on the public however suddenly collecting a million 'harmless' pieces of data is no different than collecting one, because if one pieces of harmless data is collected what does it matter if a few more(thousand) are?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2016 @ 5:06am

      Re:

      Apparently, it's only a problem when somebody *else* does it. Hypocrisy indeed. Does the FBI know any other way?

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

    • identicon
      Klamath, 19 Jul 2016 @ 5:35am

      Re: Laws are for the little people

      This lawsuit is futile because the Federal Courts, the President and Congress will not enforce the FOIA-- they all have much to hide from the public. Laws are for the little people (ask Hillary).


      As to "the much more sophisticated search tools at the disposal of FBI internal requestors" ---

      ...it is a crime under FOIA for: "..an officer or employee of an agency... Willfully maintaining a system of records without having published a notice in the Federal Register of the existence of that system of records."

      So if the FBI has much better records/search systems for internal use (it does) -- they should be listed in the Federal Register-- and specified in FOIA requests & responses. If those systems are not listed or used for FOIA actions-- specific FBI individuals involved should be identified & prosecuted.

      Federal agencies are very good at playing rope-a-dope with FOIA requestors. Need to focus on the individuals within those agencies who actually perform the day to day obstruction of the FOIA process. Suing "the FBI" as a general organization gets you nowhere.

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

      • icon
        Padpaw (profile), 19 Jul 2016 @ 9:00am

        Re: Re: Laws are for the little people

        would you believe I got into an argument last night about someone who honestly believes Hilary is innocent and is being set up be her enemies.

        If most of America thinks that way then good grief.

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

        • identicon
          Alwaid, 19 Jul 2016 @ 10:55am

          Re: Re: Re: Laws are for the little people

          Hey, there are people out there who believe the moon landings were faked. Compared to that, Hillary being innocent is a much smaller swig of kool-aid.

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

        • identicon
          Wendy Cockcroft, 21 Jul 2016 @ 5:50am

          Re: Re: Re: Laws are for the little people

          I'm not sure they do; I've not heard that one before, probably a liberal fanboi too intent on getting the party candidate into the Oval Office to be willing to accept her flaws.

          I've seen people wax lyrical about Obama, too. He might be a great family man, etc., but as President he's basically neocon. Hillary would take us further into fascism.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2016 @ 4:59am

    And the hate for law enforcement grows. I know of more than one peace officer that has recently given up on the profession. I imagine healthcare professionals will be next. Mr. Shapiro, and all Americans, should have unhindered access to the entire database, like Wikipedia has. May you live in interesting times.

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

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 21 Jul 2016 @ 5:52am

      Re:

      Remember that time the NY police went on strike and nobody noticed any difference in the crime rate? Interesting times indeed.

      Peace officers can't and won't promote peace by crapping all over us and expecting us to put up with it. Protect and serve or hit the road.

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

  • identicon
    Quiet Lurcker, 19 Jul 2016 @ 5:53am

    That's not a bug. That's a feature!

    The major point in favor of using the ACS system, instead of other, more recent and more subtle systems.

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

  • icon
    wshuff (profile), 19 Jul 2016 @ 8:13am

    So it turns out the FBI has hired my kids to perform their FOIA searches.

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

    • icon
      DeadBolt (profile), 19 Jul 2016 @ 8:52am

      Re:

      So the FBI is involved in child labour?
      Not surprising as it seems the entire agency is made of children... little shits that cry and moan and throw their toys around until they get their way and like to cause trouble but will go to the nearest "adult" and tattle tale on the others in their schemes claiming it was their ideas.

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


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