RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - The Virginian-Pilot newspaper sued the FBI claiming the agency is wrongly withholding information on the training-related deaths of two hostage rescue team members.
In a lawsuit filed in the federal court in Norfolk, Va., the newspaper's publisher and reporter Scott Daugherty claim the FBI improperly documents related to the May 17, 2013, deaths of agents Christopher Lorek and Stephen Shaw during a training exercise.
Daugherty says he requested reports and memos on the incident in its immediate aftermath, but that request was denied by the agency 13 months later. A subsequent appeal to the Department of Justice was also denied earlier this year, the complaint says.
The accident occurred at the Critical Incident Response Group headquarters in Quantico, Va., where the special agents fell while "fast-roping" out of a helicopter during a counterterrorism training exercise.
According to the FBI, "the aircraft encountered serious difficulties ... resulting in corrective action to maintain control of the helicopter. The sharp banking and rapid movement caused both SA Lorek and SA Shaw to be thrown from the rope to the water. Both agents were transported to a nearby hospital, where they succumbed to their injuries."
"The FBI acknowledges that both agents fell from a helicopter and were killed by impact," states Daugherty and VPM in their complaint. "There is no question that how two highly-talented and extraordinarily well-trained agents could have fallen from a helicopter if training were being appropriately conducted in appropriate weather conditions is a matter of vital public interest and concern."
"The FBI has acknowledged that 29 pages of information were responsive to the inquiry," the complaint continues. "The FBI's position, after 10 months of review, was that not a single page or a single line of this information was subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act."
In his July 2014 response letter, FBI Section Chief of the Record/Information Dissemination Section David M. Hardy cites privacy concerns for the victims and their families, law enforcement investigations, and restricted inter-agency memorandums.
But according to Daugherty and VPM, "discussions of whether the training was appropriately conducted in appropriate weather conditions, which should have been the subject of discussion, do not disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions... The FBI does not explain why it took 10 months for the government to determine that it could not provide even a single sentence from any of the documents for public review."
In Daugherty's recent article about the suit he writes, "A helicopter door washed ashore the day after the incident. The bureau spokeswoman said it did not come from the helicopter the agents were using but from a second FBI helicopter 'that was acting in a medevac capacity.'"
The Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) is what the FBI calls, "federal law enforcement's only full-time counterterrorism unit -- a highly trained group of special agents often called upon during the toughest times."
According to the FBI, "the team possesses capabilities that do not exist anywhere else in civilian law enforcement. Operators are able to fast-rope out of helicopters, parachute with full mission equipment, and conduct advanced SCUBA techniques. They are trained to be superior marksmen, proficient in a variety of breaching techniques -- including explosives -- and experts in close-quarter tactics."
In a May 2013 article, Daugherty cites the Hostage Rescue Team's elite standing, including their connection to Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
As a testament to the team's rigorous training and demanding selection process, less than 300 officers have been accepted to the HRT since its inception in 1983.
"Highly trained and skilled agents do not fall to their deaths from a helicopter for no reason," state Daugherty and VPM in their complaint. "And the public is entitled to know what caused the fall and tragic deaths and whether remedial action has been undertaken."
The complaint argues, "few matters are of more concern to the public than whether the government, including the FBI, conducts training appropriately, provides procedures to assure that highly-talented and capable employees are protected from death or injury, and that procedures are utilized to avoid a repetition of this tragedy. Providing this information does not interfere with the FBI's mission. It is appropriate that the FBI explain to the public why a tragic loss of life occurred."
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