Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The death of a federal judge in Washington D.C. has set back efforts to conclude a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit over documents related to Peoples Temple and the FBI’s investigation of the group following the tragedy of November 1978. The editors of the jonestown report are the plaintiffs in the suit.

Six years ago, in response to several FOIA requests for information about the Temple and its leaders, the FBI released more than 47,000 pages of documents in electronic form – filling three CD’s – but declined to review the records to determine whether any previously-withheld material should be released. The lawsuit asked the court to compel such a review, especially in light of the time that had elapsed between the deaths in Jonestown and the date of the requests.

A page-by-page examination made within the last year reveals that the agency’s release is deficient in numerous respects:

  • It includes hundreds of pages which have been withheld in their entirety under the national security exemption of FOIA. Federal regulations regarding such documents which have gone into effect since the suit was filed require agencies to declassify documents that are more than 25 years old – as all these records are – unless there is a demonstrably compelling reason to retain the secrecy.
  • The release also includes thousands of pages with deletions under the law’s privacy exception, even though much of the exempted material is part of the public record elsewhere.
  • In addition, thousands of pages are either partially or completely illegible, sometimes because the originals are faint, but just as often often because the agency was not careful in its duplication.
  • Finally, the agency released more than 1000 photographs as photocopies, rather than as electronic images which could be duplicated and printed.

The plaintiffs spent much of the past year compiling lists of problems with the original release, and in late summer, they completed a lengthy and detailed report for the court ahead of a settlement or litigation. On September 9, however, Judge John Garrett Penn, a senior judge in the District of Columbia who had been assigned to the case, died of cancer. He was 75.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in late October. Further proceedings on the case will likely not occur until early 2008.