How The FBI’s Dysfunctional Search Systems Keep Information Out Of FOIA Requesters’ Hands

Thanks to yet another FOIA lawsuit, more evidence is being produced that suggests certain federal agencies employ labyrinthine systems that seem deliberately designed to keep requesters as far away as possible from responsive documents.

Trentadue v. FBI deals with the release (or lack thereof) of videotapes containing footage of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Four days of oral testimony has at least partially exposed the search methods used by the FBI, which the agency uses as convenient information silos, rather than treat their central database as a cohesive whole. Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press points out that this “system” often leads to unfulfilled or partially-filled requests. FOIA requesters are often not aware that the FBI will do a half-assed job unless led by the nose through each of its databases and document systems. (via Unredacted)

The latest testimony from the Trentadue case shows that reporters and members of the public who send FOIA requests to the FBI might not know that there are a myriad of different records “systems” that they need to specify in order for a comprehensive search to take place. They might not know that the FBI typically only searches for the location of the main file related to an investigation as reported to headquarters, so reporters should also request cross-references, which are mentions of the subject of their request in investigations outside of the main file. While field offices have FOIA-trained personnel to assist RIDS (Records Information Dissemination System), reporters should also send FOIA requests directly to individual field offices they think are relevant to the investigation, because RIDS may only request documents from the field office associated with the main file.

On top of that, the FBI utilizes an obviously misnamed Central Records System (CRS) when responding to FOIA requests. Despite the name’s suggestion that it a central repository of FBI records, it actually isn’t — not because the database doesn’t contain the most of the records the FBI has compiled, but because it can be searched using three different methods, all of which will return different sets of documents. The “Automated Case Support” (ACS) is the tool used to search the CRS, but that search isn’t unified.

The FBI’s Central Records System (CRS) contains the “universe of records” the FBI has acquired in its law enforcement operations. According to trial testimony in the Trentadue case, the Automated Case Support system (“ACS”) searches the CRS, and the ACS is split into three components: the Investigative Case Management system (“ICM”), the Electronic Case File (“ECF”), and the Universal Index (“UNI”).

The ICM is a case management tool for documents involved in an ongoing investigation. The ECF is broader and contains all FBI law enforcement documents uploaded to the CRS except for some aged documents, or documents not uploaded for unknown reasons. Importantly, the ECF searches the text of the documents themselves.

The FBI revealed in court that requesters basically need to know the systems as intimately as responding agents do if they expect to receive the entirety of what they’re seeking. In Trentadue v. FBI, the FBI limited its search to UNI, rather than utilize the ECF, which would have found more documents thanks to its search of document text. The FBI told the court that its default method for FOIA responses is the more-limited UNI search and that it won’t perform more thorough searches using other methods unless specifically asked to by the requester.

Not only that, but the FBI will decide what keywords to use when searching the database, unless required to do otherwise by the text of the request.

Testimony revealed that the one search of the CRS was made using the generic UNI keyword “OKBOMB,” even though there was a wide range of keywords that could have been used in a text-based ECF search.

That’s only one part of the FBI’s FOIA obfuscation efforts. MuckRock’s Shawn Musgrave points out that the FBI will often refuse to perform an extensive search until sued by the requester. Even worse, when knowledgable requesters have specified an ECF search, the FBI will sometimes refuse to follow this instruction.

And there’s more to it than simply using the least-responsive search method by default. There’s also evidence suggesting the FBI is keeping information out of requesters’ hand by preventing the documents from being added to the Central Records System in the first place.

John Solomon of the Associated Press in 2004 documented the existence of so-called “I-Drives” used by the FBI, which were file-sharing drives used in the course of case management but which defense lawyers said could be used to withhold evidence. Testimony showed that the I-Drives have been replaced by “S-Drives,” which serve essentially the same function. Trentadue alleges the FBI failed to search S-Drives for records responsive to his FOIA request.

Finally, as if the previous information uncovered during oral testimony wasn’t damning enough, this case is on hold as the court examines witness tampering claims against the FBI, which allegedly instructed a former agent not to testify at this trial. Apparently, even the FBI’s former personnel can’t be “searched” properly for information, not even by the courts.

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