FOIA Suit for FBI Records Still in Preliminary Stages

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2001 against the FBI over its handling of materials related to Peoples Temple is still active, although there have been no substantive decisions in the case through the end of July 2003.

The suit resulted from the agency’s inability or unwillingness to review its Jonestown documents and to determine if the exemptions to disclosure claimed in the early 1990s are still valid.

In 1998 and 1999, the editors of the jonestown report made several requests under the Freedom of Information Act for limited numbers of documents in FBI files on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The FBI responded that there were more than 48,000 documents – i.e., the entire Jonestown file – related to the initial requests. The agency eventually released three CDs containing its entire Jonestown file.

However, the CDs had neither an index, nor a guide on how to find individual documents. Moreover, since the documents were scanned onto the CDs through an imaging program instead of a word program, there was no access to people or subjects through word searches. The documents also retained the deletions made when the agency initially catalogued the records about ten years ago.

After the agency rejected our administrative appeals and re-affirmed its claims of exemption, we filed suit against the FBI, claiming that the agency failed to meet its responsibility under the FOIA. The suit is currently pending before U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. (McGehee et al. v. Department of Justice, Civil Action #01-1872).