(CN) - The FBI must explain why it withheld records from a graduate student about an alleged assassination plot against the leaders of Occupy Houston, a federal judge ruled.
Ryan Noah Shapiro is a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research includes "the policing of dissent, especially in the name of national security" and "exploring FBI and other intelligence agency efforts to subvert the Freedom of Information Act," according to his profile on MIT's website.
Shapiro sent three FOIA requests to the FBI in early 2013, asking for records about Occupy Houston.
Specifically Shapiro asked for FBI records about "a potential plan to gather intelligence against the leaders of [Occupy Wall Street-related protests in Houston, Texas] and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership [of the protests] via suppressed sniper rifles."
The Houston group is an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York City in 2011 and focused on the widening income gap between America's top earners, the so-called 1 percent, and the rest of the country.
Shapiro said he wanted the records for his doctorate work, and that he intended to release urgent info about Occupy Houston to the public.
The FBI found 17 pages of pertinent records, gave Shapiro five of them, with some information redacted, and withheld 12.
Shapiro filed suit in April 2013, alleging the FBI had violated the FOIA by failing to adequately search for, and produce, records responsive to his requests, and had improperly invoked FOIA exemptions.
The FBI filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the case is moot because it conducted thorough searches and released all its non-exempt records to Shapiro.
The agency also alleged that Shapiro failed to state an FOIA claim because it released all records it can legally disclose.
To justify its actions the FBI cited several exemptions under the FOIA.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer found the FBI had properly withheld some records, but she was unconvinced by the agency's explanation for its use of Exemption 7, which protects from disclosure "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes."
Collyer wrote: "(Shapiro) argues that FBI has not established that it actually conducted an investigation into criminal acts, specified the particular individual or incident that was the object of its investigation, adequately described the documents it is withholding under Exemption 7, or sufficiently connected the withheld documents to a specific statute that permits FBI to collect information and investigate crimes.
"Mr. Shapiro further alleges that FBI has failed to state a rational basis for its investigation or connection to the withheld documents, which he describes as overly-generalized and not particular. On the latter point, the Court agrees."
Judge Collyer added: "FBI will be directed to explain its basis for withholding information pursuant to Exemption 7. To the extent that FBI believes it cannot be more specific without revealing the very information it wishes to protect, it may request an in camera review of the documents."
Collyer gave Shapiro leave to reply to the FBI's dismissal motion.
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