Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel, today announced the filing of an administrative appeal with the Department of Justice after a “ludicrous scavenger hunt response” from the FBI to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
PPSA had submitted this FOIA request in mid-June asking for documents from DOJ law enforcement agencies. PPSA sought records about the use of administrative subpoenas, which are often used to collect bulk data rather than aim at an identifiable target for a specific reason, as required by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. These subpoenas are often used without any showing of probable case.
To learn more about this practice, PPSA requested documents concerning when DOJ uses administrative subpoenas, “whether and when it has used them without probable cause, when it has used them as alternatives to a court-ordered subpoena, and when DOJ shares data obtained through administrative subpoenas with other federal or state agencies.”
But the FBI couldn’t trouble itself to search for any records. Instead, the FBI blithely directed PPSA to rummage through the voluminous documents on its online “Search Vault,” suggesting that there could be responsive records somewhere in that database. The FBI never suggested that all responsive records would be found in the Vault.
“The FBI’s scavenger hunt response is ludicrous,” Schaerr said. “PPSA sought records reflecting the FBI’s use of administrative subpoenas with and without probable cause. In both instances, the request did not require the FBI to do anything other than search for records concerning the use of administrative subpoenas, and how those subpoenas addressed the presence or absence of probable cause.”
Schaerr cited a precedent, Miller v. Casey (1984), that the FBI is bound to read a FOIA request as drafted, not as agency officials might wish it was drafted.
“The FBI’s willful refusal to search is a legal error,” Schaerr said. “The FBI might want to avoid the work FOIA requires of it, but we are hopeful the Director of Information Policy at DOJ, and beyond that if necessary, the courts, will recognize that the law does not recognize exceptions for inconvenience.”
PPSA awaits responses from other DOJ components, ranging from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, DOJ’s Criminal Division, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.