Too Much Free Time

by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
foia, privacy, superman

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.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  • identicon
    carlb, 4 May 2018 @ 8:51pm


    The Daily Planet is not fictional. It is a clear parody of the Daily Star, which is what passes for a real newspaper in Toronto. Unfortunately, the Star building which appears in the comic is no longer standing... it was demolished after the Toronto Star moved to 1 Yonge St. years ago.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2018 @ 9:09pm

    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.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2018 @ 7:10am

      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.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2018 @ 2:04am

    You can never be too paranoid when dealing with Scientology.

    Source: I am an old time Scientology protester.

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

  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 5 May 2018 @ 4:39am

    This is great.

    Wait a sec. This is great. It shows that the FBI can take a joke. And they didn't redact the whole page.. We should cheer the added transparency instead of ridiculing them. Otherwise they will believe people don't really want this transparent side of them.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2018 @ 5:31am

    Hey, that Twitter page is a dead link.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2018 @ 10:18am

    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.

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

  • identicon
    Tom Stone, 5 May 2018 @ 5:57pm

    Superman's secret identity revealed!

    I wonder if anyone has told Admiral Hardy's staff about Santa Claus?

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

  • identicon
    Xenu, 7 May 2018 @ 8:21am

    I banished these weirdos to volcanoes on the third star from the sun in your galaxy. They were the dregs of society in our universe and needed to be gone. You should do the same.

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

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.