Justice Dept. Must Turn Over Full Gang Records

     SEATTLE, Wash. (CN) – A federal judge has ordered the Justice Department to remove redactions from records that track violent gangs and terrorist organizations, and gave the agency two weeks to hand over the files to the ACLU.
     U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik’s ruling ends years-long wrangling over the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a nationwide database operated by the FBI. The NCIC provides online access of criminal justice information for local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement officers, government agencies, financial institutions and prospective employers.
     The ACLU’s 2008 Freedom of Information Act request centered around the database’s Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File. According to the 2009 complaint — filed after the FBI failed to respond to the FOIA request within 20 working days — there were 7,000 people listed in the VGTOF as terrorists in 2003. Many of those individuals had no criminal records, since entry on the terrorist portion of the file does not require prior arrest or conviction.
     The ACLU’s FOIA request asked the FBI for all records describing the operation and maintenance of the terrorist file. After some foot-dragging, the government found 13,088 pages of documents, two cassette tapes and a DVD relevant to the ACLU’s request. The FBI deemed another 425 pages exempt from FOIA disclosure, and 4,952 pages and another DVD subject to redaction.
     Noting “the tension between the government’s need to protect the homeland, with its concomitant need for secrecy and confidentiality, and the public’s interest in understanding how the government exercises its extraordinary powers toward that goal,” Judge Lasnik granted DOJ summary judgment on some FOIA-exempt documents but ordered an in camera review of others in 2011.
     “The attempt to prove and disprove the applicability of FOIA exemptions through a sample of heavily redacted or withheld documents is fraught with danger,” Lasnik wrote at the time.
     Following his in camera review, Lasnik allowed some of the NCIC redactions to stand on sensitive security information grounds. He also upheld the government’s claims that some documents would disclose law enforcement techniques and procedures and are FOIA-exempt.
     But Lasnik ordered the Justice Department to release drafts and records that are not geographically-based and do not contain travel patterns which could be used by criminals to circumvent the law. Another document the government claims is protected by executive order was not properly classified as national security information and the redactions must be removed, the judge said.
     In all, Lasnik ordered the Justice Department to release 20 full or partial documents to the ACLU, most involving the removal of improper redactions, to the ACLU within 14 days.

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