Justice Department Considers Substantive Issues in FOIA Lawsuit

The U.S. Attorney in McGehee et al. v. Department of Justice is seeking a settlement of an FOIA lawsuit which seeks all FBI documents relating to Jonestown and Peoples Temple. The agency has not yet presented its offer, however, and given the number of issues which remain unresolved, it seems likely that some aspects of the case will eventually be litigated.

The FBI has compiled 48,000 pages on three CDs, and makes these available to FOIA requesters, but the disks are neither indexed nor are they in a computer-searchable format.

Filed in August 2001 pursuant to an initial request made in 1999, the suit asks the court to compel the FBI to remedy these shortcomings and others that the plaintiffs, Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore, have identified. Many of the documents scanned onto the disks are illegible. Photographs have been processed as photocopies, and are unusable. Additional pages were withheld from disclosure under several of the law’s exemptions. Still other documents were withheld because other federal agencies generated them. During the course of the suit, this latter problem has been addressed by the FBI, and new documents have been released as a result.

A thorough page-by-page examination of the disks reveals further problems, however. Pages from documents are missing; the number of items listed on FBI worksheets does not match the number of items released; subsequent FOIA requests to the FBI for information on individuals (such as Carolyn Moore Layton and Ann Elizabeth Moore) have resulted in statements from the FBI that no main file records were found – even though there are readily identifiable items on the CDs. Unfortunately, one must search each and every page to find them.

Most egregious, however, according to the plaintiffs, is the arbitrary and capricious system of exemption and classification. The names of certain public figures are withheld based upon privacy exemptions on one sheet, and a few pages later the name is not withheld. Names of individuals appearing in newspaper articles are blacked out. Names of key players in the dispute between Peoples Temple and the Concerned Relatives – especially people who spoke to the media, and were public figures even before 18 November 1978 – are withheld, while the names of Jonestown survivors, which might arguably be considered private, are released.

A final problem is that of recent classification of documents, setting a date of 25 years hence for declassification. This means that some items are not scheduled for release until 2025 or later. This essentially withholds information about Jonestown for fifty years, since the tragedy occurred 28 years ago. Since many of the principals involved are dead, and Cold War considerations are long over, this declassification timetable seems particularly onerous for scholars and researchers attempting to understand government interest in Peoples Temple.

The FBI has agreed to rescan those pages which were rendered illegible or cut off in the photocopying process, but whether the agency will burn a new set of CDs at the end of the process to reflect the progress made on this case may be the final point of negotiation.