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News :: Human Rights : Media : Politics : Technology
The Student Underground Has No FBI File
03 Feb 2006
Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 as a way for United States citizens to get information about what the Feds are up to. Learn all about it.
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The Student Underground Has No FBI File
At Least, According to the FBI
By Micah Lee

The Student Underground

Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 as a way for United States citizens to get information about what the Feds are up to. This law applies to every federal agency, including the Department of Defense (and all branches of the military), the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the CIA, the FBI, Amtrak, and about a hundred others. FOIA is a federal act and only applies to federal agencies. State and local agencies should have their own record dissemination rules. The Department of Justice has compiled a nifty list of federal agencies and their FOIA contact information here:

You might think that this law is incredible and suddenly makes the federal government completely open, transparent and subservient to its citizens, increasing the level of democracy tenfold. But it’s not quite that good. There are nine exemptions to the rule, including “classified secret matters or national defense or foreign policy,” “trade secrets,” “investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes,” and a bunch more, all vague and often broadly interpreted. With these exemptions, and with the federal agencies getting to choose their own method of filtering results, the Feds can classify anything they want for whatever reasons they want and not tell their citizens about it. So if there’s something they really don’t want us to know, we don’t get to know, no matter what it is.

FOIA used to yield more fruitful results. FOIA requests helped expose the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), whose initial goal was to “increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections” inside the Communist Party USA. It soon expanded to include the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Weathermen, and plenty of other groups. During the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, the FOIA was drastically narrowed through administrative and judicial reinterpretation, as well as legislative amendment. So now the FOIA will be pretty much useless to gather information about the federal government’s current counter-intelligence program (hence the lack of results on the Student Underground query).

Regardless, it’s still worth a shot, and you might get something good. Black Box Voting, which helped expose Diebold for their questionable electronic voting machines, successfully used the FOIA. Muckraking journalists file FOIA requests all the time, and often get decent results to publish. FOIA request results released by the ACLU on December 20, 2005 showed that the FBI had been monitoring the Catholic Worker Movement, essentially an anarcho-pacifist Christian movement, saying they “advocated peace with a Christian and semi-communistic ideology.” The ACLU also released 100 pages of FBI FOIA results about the animals rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), including a “Vegan Community Project” event at the University of Indiana where PETA activists distributed vegetarian starter kits. The FBI has been monitoring not only PETA, but Greenpeace and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as well, and we know this thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Feds have unlimited resources at their disposal, so while we’re fighting them we need to use every tool we have available. The FOIA is a small and limited glimpse of democracy and transparency in the otherwise secretive and authoritarian federal government, and it’s a tool that we often underexploit.
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Re: The Student Underground Has No FBI File
03 Feb 2006
Very important info, thanks for showing people how easy it is--just remember it's not just the FBI that's spying and keeping files!
Re: The Student Underground Has No FBI File
03 Feb 2006
Look at this document with your eyes. You are getting very sleepy. repeat after me "This not from the same organization that made peace treatys with the indians"
Re: The Student Underground Has No FBI File
03 Feb 2006
Umm, IIRC, what exposed COINTELPRO were documents lifted in a burglary at the FBI's media, PA office in 1972, which shortly thereafter turned up on the streets of Philly.

FOIA may have been useful in bringing out more info, but the seminal clue was in incriminating FBI documents on display at a Powelton Village street fair.