SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The FBI can no longer withhold thousands of pages of surveillance files of Muslim communities by claiming the "law enforcement" exemption of the Freedom of Information Act, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg found that the exemption "is not the appropriate umbrella under which to shield these documents from public view."
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2010 requested records concerning the FBI's investigation and surveillance of Muslim communities in Northern California.
"Given the impact of the surveillance on national security and the exercise of core civil liberties, it is imperative that the public gain a better understanding of the methods and scope of the FBI's surveillance of Muslim communities in the United States and the use of racial and ethnic 'mapping' for law enforcement purposes," the complaint states .
Among other things, the ACLU was concerned about whether the FBI was infiltrating Muslim communities and mosques through informants, using race and religion in deciding whom to investigate, and recruiting Muslim and Arab children to serve in the agency's Junior Agent program.
"According to census data, nearly half of all Bay Area residents could be considered 'ethnic' and their 'behaviors,' 'cultural traditions,' and 'life style characteristics' potentially could be mapped or otherwise analyzed by the FBI. It is unclear how the FBI has implemented this authority in Northern California," the complaint states.
The FBI did not release any of the requested documents, so the ACLU sued in February 2011. After mediation, the FBI released more than 50,000 full or redacted pages of records in 20 monthly installments, but withheld nearly 48,000 pages by invoking FOIA exemptions.
The ACLU claimed the FBI could not withhold any documents under Exemption 7, which exempts "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes."
Although the FBI submitted a lengthy declaration describing how the type of documents it withheld advance law enforcement interests, it did not sufficiently "establish a rational nexus between the enforcement of a federal law and the documents for which it claims Exemption 7 applies," Seeborg wrote in a 7-page ruling.
The FBI claimed that the techniques contained in the requested documents combat unlawful activity and, if exposed, would undermine their effectiveness.
Without more, this is not enough to permit the FBI to apply the law enforcement exemption, Seeborg ruled.
"The FBI's refrain at oral argument that many of the withheld documents do not relate to particular investigations, and thus cannot be linked to any particular provision of law, only serves to emphasize the point that Exemption 7 is not the appropriate umbrella under which to shield these documents from public view," Seeborg wrote.
"The parties are hereby ordered to meet and confer, and to file with the Court within thirty (30) days of the date of this order a case management plan."