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

From techdirt:

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

by Mike Masnick from the transparency dept on Friday, December 10th, 2010 @ 4:16PM

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.

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