FOIA Lawsuit for FBI Records on Peoples Temple Suffers Setback

A decade-long effort to force the release of thousands of documents on the FBI’s investigation into the assassination of Leo Ryan and the deaths in Guyana on November 18, 1978 suffered a setback this summer, when a federal district judge sided with the government in its decision to withhold or redact many of them.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Fielding M. McGehee III and Rebecca Moore – managers of this website – for all records in the FBI’s possession related to Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the FBI’s use of national security and privacy exemptions was inconsistent, overbroad and now out-of-date.

The litigation dates back to 1999, when the plaintiffs learned that the FBI had merged all records related to the tragedy into one collection – without an index or easy access to separate previously-defined components of it – and that the 48,000 collection would be released for a copying fee of ten cents per page.

In the intervening years, the plaintiffs have won several victories related to their requests for the records.

• The FBI chose the Jonestown documents as the first of its large collections to digitize and release on CD-ROM. For a number of years, the Jonestown Institute provided copies of these CDs upon request.

• More recently, the FBI was ordered to release approximately 38,000 pages of records without redactions. Those pages were of records compiled by Peoples Temple itself and collected by the FBI in Jonestown following the tragedy of November 1978. In 1979, the Receiver appointed by the California courts to track down Temple financial assets obtained this set of documents and – upon completion of his office’s work – turned them over to the California Historical Society. Since a complete, unredacted set had already been released, the court found, the FBI could not exempt anything in the same materials requested under FOIA.

Following this release, the only documents under litigation were the 10,000 pages generated during the FBI’s investigation into Ryan’s death – code-named RYMUR, for RYan MURder – and, more specifically, the 2000 pages which still included blacked-out words and paragraphs or which were withheld in their entirety.

• In 2010, the federal government launched a system-wide review of documents which had been withheld under Exemption 1, the national security exemption. The result was a release of 47 additional documents.

The plaintiffs are pursuing additional avenues to compel release of the remaining materials.

The August 5, 2011 decision in McGehee v. FBI is here.