a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

One routine FOIA checkup, one clean bill of health

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th December 2010

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. 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, 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-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 FoundationI outlined those activities on the Department of Justice “Certification of Identity” Form 360 available via Defending Dissent, following the helpful directions they supply separately.  (As per the example given there, I also included the meeting about the FBI raids on peace activists 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 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 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, where great people like Sue Udry stand ready to help with whatever develops.


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