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One routine FOIA checkup, one clean bill of health

Federal Bureau of Investigation
November 30, 2010

FOIPA Request No.: 1157666-000

Dear Mr. Nephew,

This responds to your Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts (FOIPA) request

Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the indices to our Central Records System.  We were unable to identify responsive main file records.  […]

To the extent your FOIPA request seeks access to records that would either confirm or deny any individual’s placement on any government watch list, please be advised that the U.S. Government can neither confirm nor deny whether a particular person is on any terrorist watch list. […]

Sincerely yours,

I got the clean bill of surveillance health about two weeks after filing my FOIA request, using forms supplied by the Defending Dissent Foundation [1]. While I thought the odds were somewhere between slim and none that I’d been worth wasting FBI time on, I didn’t know for sure, I’d wondered about it before, and I figured it would be interesting to find out one way or the other.

I’ve been arrested for civil disobedience twice in my life.  Once was way back in 1983, at a mass blockade of Lawrence Livermore Labs [2], where U.S. nuclear weapons are designed; there were 1300 of us, and we spent 11 days in jail — in our case, a huge circus tent on the grounds of the Santa Rita Jail — before eventually being released en masse.  The other time was on my own, on September 11, 2005, at the Pentagon [3]-sponsored “Freedom Walk” commemorating 9/11 and ‘supporting the troops.’  I wore an “Abu Ghraib guy” poncho and hood, and carried a sign reading “For Them, For Us, For Our Troops: Never Again” (in part) on one side and “Freedom?” on the other. Back in 1977, I joined a demonstration against building a gym on the site of the Kent State shootings, but wasn’t arrested.  Besides those incidents, I’ve been involved in various grassroots political groups from time to time, mainly the nuclear freeze and free zone movements in California,  and impeachment efforts in Takoma Park.

Defending Dissent Foundation [4]I outlined those activities on the Department of Justice “Certification of Identity [5]” Form 360 available via Defending Dissent, following the helpful directions [6] they supply separately.  (As per the example given there, I also included the meeting about the FBI raids on peace activists [7] that I attended in early November.)  I put the envelope in the mail, and figured I’d hear from them in two or three months.

Instead, it was just a couple of weeks.  And — as I suspected I would — I learned that I’m not all that interesting, and that the FBI is not quite so monumentally stupid as to think that I am.

But many other people have been equally peaceful and undeserving of FBI or police attention, yet got it all the same.  The anti-death penalty and peace activists who were infiltrated and reported on by Maryland State Police [8] might have once scoffed to think they were under suspicion as well.  But at some point they filed a FOIA request — and shone a light on serious police abuses of power and infringements of the right of free speech, free assembly, and freedom from surveillance without reasonable cause.

For most of us, most of the time, I think the best way to think of a FOIA request is as a kind of routine citizen checkup: a checkup on your privacy and liberties, and a checkup on the country.  I’m pleased that in my case, the results were good — one unsurprising positive data point to weigh against the negative ones.  I’ve met people who were morbidly and almost certainly unjustifiably paranoid about this kind of thing, and I don’t think that does anyone any good — it deactivates and discourages you for no good reason.  My one little experience pushes back against that at any rate.

So if you’re at all politically active — and even if you’re not — I think you should submit a FOIA request, too, or even organize a FOIA party [9] with your friends.  If you’re like me, it’s likely you’ll find there’s nothing to worry about — and if you’re like me, it’s also likely a request you’ll want to get in the habit of repeating from time to time.  If you do, share the results with Defending Dissent [10], where great people like Sue Udry stand ready to help with whatever develops.


7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "One routine FOIA checkup, one clean bill of health"

#1 Comment By Robert Nephew On December 27, 2010 @ 1:14 am

They visited me a month ago, and I finally broke under the waterboarding and told them all sorts of stuff about you. Guess there must have been some sort of paperwork mixup if they gave you a clean bill of health.

#2 Comment By Thomas Nephew On December 27, 2010 @ 2:21 am

Traitor! 🙂

#3 Comment By Robert Nephew On December 27, 2010 @ 11:59 am

Dick Cheney can be *very* persuasive; sorry.

#4 Comment By Nick On January 20, 2011 @ 2:40 am

Hi. I wanted to ask when I sent a FOIPA request I got a response similar to yours except do you know why they write that although they couldnt locate main file records the letter then goes on to say the “To the extent your FOIPA request seeks access to records that would either confirm or deny any individual’s placement on any government watch list etc. etc.”

Does this mean you or I for that matter could have been on a watch list or something seeing as how they mentioned watch lists in the FOIPA response? I too sent my FOIPA Request originally in 2010. I think it was in April to be exact.

Why do they add this in the response when other FOIPA Requests that I have seen on the Internet simply have a plain speaking “no records” response. Do you know why please?

#5 Comment By Thomas Nephew On January 21, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

My understanding is that yes, the response explicitly *does not* rule out that you (and I) were (or are) on a watch list. I don’t know when they began adding that language — but I know someone who might, and I’ll see if [4] can help us out.

I assume we’ll learn that some kind of FOIA carve-out was provided for by our supine Congress in one of its fits of “let’s give the FBI and the NSA and everybody double what they want,” e.g., some little noticed provision of a PATRIOT Act reauthorization or some such. The TSA et al are very loathe to admit anything whatsoever about watch lists, so this would reflect that at the FBI.

#6 Comment By sue udry On January 21, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

I am looking into when that language was inserted. it’s been a few years — it was in the response to my request (in 2009).
the next step is to ask them to cross reference in order to find your file. I am working on a form letter for that and will post it here and on the DDF site.

#7 Comment By Thomas Nephew On January 22, 2011 @ 9:58 am

Thanks, Sue!