Government Contests FOIA Suit for FBI Records

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the FBI over its handling of materials related to Peoples Temple has moved ahead with preliminary legal skirmishes, including two competing motions for summary judgment. There have been no substantive judicial decisions in the case through the end of October. 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. It later incorporated all the requests into one, since the agency’s response would have been the same for each.

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.

With that in mind, the requesters challenged the privacy, national security and law enforcement exemptions claimed by the FBI. In a letter asking for review of the blacked-out names, for example, the requesters noted that numerous principals have died in the intervening years, and asserted that those individuals could no longer enjoy the privilege of privacy.

Within two months, the agency rejected the appeals and affirmed the claims of exemption. In so doing, the requesters later wrote, the FBI failed to meet its responsibility under the law: either it made a good faith review of the documents, using an index which it denies it has; or, more likely, it decided that the documents are as cumbersome to review as they are to read, and dismissed the appeals without considering their merits. 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).