ACLU Suit Charges FBI & Justice with Dodging Pendleton Domestic Spying FOIA

April 21, 2009

SAN DIEGO – The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department are illegally dragging their feet in responding to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from the Camp Pendleton domestic spying case sent in July 2008, according to a complaint filed late yesterday by the San Diego ACLU and the law firm Fish & Richardson The suit in U.S. District Court seeks to compel the FBI and Justice Department to respond to requests for records related to a security breach at Camp Pendleton’s Strategic Technical Operations Center first reported in May 2008.

The FOIA request was prompted by an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, which reported that staff at the Center had been stealing classified surveillance files and giving them to local law enforcement agencies and defense contractors. According to reports, some of the stolen files indicated that the plaintiffs, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, California (CAIR-CA) and its San Diego chapter public relations director, and the Islamic Center of San Diego may have been monitored by a surveillance program targeting Muslim groups. They filed a FOIA request on July 14, 2008.

“It is unconscionable that nine months later, the government has engaged in a stall-them-til-they-give-up game,” said David Blair-Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “It is urgent that these requests be expedited, because the potential remains that the government is monitoring or infiltrating religious organizations. It is urgent that possible Constitutional violations are immediately exposed and stopped.”

The plaintiffs’ FOIA request was targeted to uncover information from the FBI, the National Joint Terrorism Task Force, or any other terrorism task forces about any surveillance conducted that related to any of the plaintiffs. The request was straightforward and basic: Was surveillance conducted on law-abiding Muslim residents of Southern California based solely on their religion? Is it ongoing? Who authorized it and why? Was information gathered through the program unlawfully shared with private contractors and law enforcement?

“The accessibility of government records through FOIA is a critical part of our democracy because it facilitates informed and honest discussion of government policies and activities,” said Todd Miller of Fish & Richardson. “The public has a vested interest in ensuring that agencies respond to FOIA requests swiftly and completely, and the plaintiffs’ suit will vindicate those interests, in addition to enabling honest discussion about the government’s surveillance policies.”

“It is unfortunate that we need to resort to legal action in order to get answers from federal law enforcement and National Joint Terrorism Task Force officials regarding our FOIA request,” said CAIR San Diego Public Relations Director Edgar Hopida. “ The fact that they have purposely delayed our request only creates an unnecessary growing divide of mistrust between the American Muslim community and federal law enforcement.”

The lawsuit charges that the defendants violated FOIA by failing to make an adequate search for records, failing to promptly release records, failing to expedite the processing of the request, failing to respond within the statutory time limits, and failing to respond to the plaintiffs’ request for a waiver of fees. The complaint asks that defendants be ordered to process the FOIA request immediately and expeditiously and make the records available waiving all processing fees. The complaint also requests that plaintiffs’ costs and reasonable attorney fees be awarded.

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Read the Complaint