Transparency activist Ryan Shapiro discusses a growing controversy over the FBI’s monitoring of Occupy Houston in 2011. The case centers on what the FBI knew about an alleged assassination plot against Occupy leaders and why it failed to share this information. The plot was first revealed in a heavily redacted document obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund through a FOIA request. The document mentioned an individual “planned to engage in sniper attacks against protesters in Houston, Texas.” When Shapiro asked for more details, the FBI said it found 17 pages of pertinent records and gave him five of them, with some information redacted. Shapiro sued, alleging the FBI had improperly invoked FOIA exemptions. Last week, Federal District Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with Shapiro, ruling the FBI had to explain why it withheld the records.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
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AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about your work around animal rights activism and getting information, but I want to first turn to Occupy Houston. You have been working on getting information from the FBI around Occupy Houston. The particular issue focuses on what the FBI knew about an alleged assassination plot in 2011 against leaders of Occupy Houston and why it failed to share this information. The plot was first revealed in a heavily redacted document obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice through a FOIA request. It read, quote, “An identified [REDACTED] as of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protestors in Houston, Texas if deemed necessary,” unquote. When our guest, Ryan Shapiro, asked for more details, the FBI said it found 17 pages of pertinent records and gave him five of them with some information redacted. So, Ryan Shapiro, you sued, alleging the FBI had improperly invoked FOIA exemptions.
Last week, Federal District Judge Rosemary Collyer seemed to agree with you, when she ruled the FBI had to explain why it withheld records. She made reference in her ruling to David Hardy, the head of the FBI’s FOIA division, writing, quote, “At no point does Mr. Hardy supply specific facts as to the basis for FBI’s belief that the Occupy protesters might have been engaged in terroristic or other criminal activity. … Neither the word ‘terrorism’ nor the phrase ‘advocating the overthrow of the government’ are talismanic, especially where FBI purports to be investigating individuals who ostensibly are engaged in protected First Amendment activity.”
Ryan Shapiro, explain what the judge ruled and what “talismanic” means.
RYAN SHAPIRO: Absolutely. First I should say that this is a really weird and crazy story, and I’m still trying to make sense of it, and I’m working with my attorney, Jeffrey Light, and the journalist Jason Leopold to that end. But the judge’s ruling is terrific on this point.
So, basically, the FBI said, “We found 17 pages, but we’re only going to give you five of them, because national security.” And the FBI alleged, and David Hardy, the head of the FOIA division of the FBI, asserted in his declaration to the court that the records were exempt from FOIA because they were part of the FBI’s investigation, a national security-oriented terrorism investigation of Occupy Houston protesters for potential terrorist activity, including advocating the overthrow of government. And David Hardy provided no evidence to back up his claim. He just said the words, because so often—as is sadly the case, so often judges are tremendously deferential to the FBI and to other intelligence and security agencies in these sorts of FOIA questions, because the FBI tells the judges, “You’re not qualified to decide whether or not this constitutes a threat to national security to release, so we’re going to tell you that it does, and you should defer to us.”
In this case, Judge Collyer made a wonderful ruling and said, “No, you can’t just say the words. The words aren’t just talismans—terrorism, national security. You have to back them up. You can’t just wave them around like magic and expect us—expect the court to give you what you want.” And so now the judge has required the FBI to provide substantiation for their seemingly preposterous claims that Occupy Houston were terrorists advocating the overthrow of government. And the FBI has until April 9 to provide this support. They can do it openly or they can do an ex parte in camera declaration, so a secret submission to the judge where she can review the documents herself.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about this assassination attempt against Occupy activists?
RYAN SHAPIRO: Yes, absolutely. As I said, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what’s going on there, but what I want to know is, first of all—so my requests here are in part inspired because I want to know what the role of the FBI is in coordinating the response to the Occupy movement, why the FBI considered the Occupy movement a terrorist threat, and I also want to know why the FBI didn’t inform the protesters of this tremendous threat against them. As Kade Crockford at the ACLU recently said, if the targets of this plot had been Wall Street bankers, I think we can all safely assume that the FBI would have picked up the phone.
AMY GOODMAN: And called them.
RYAN SHAPIRO: And called them, yes, absolutely. So—and, finally, I want to know—and because this is how it appears in the documents—of course, they’re heavily redacted, so we’re not sure—but why was the FBI appearing to pay far more attention to peaceful protesters in their investigation than to the actual terrorists who were plotting to kill those protesters?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ryan Shapiro. He has been called a “FOIA superhero” for his skill in obtaining government records using the Freedom of Information Act. Today we are revealing on Democracy Now! he is suing several federal agencies, a lawsuit that was just filed today, including the NSA, for their failure to comply with FOIA requests regarding former South African President Nelson Mandela. Ryan Shapiro is a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s received tens of thousands of FBI files on the animal rights movement, which is what we’re going to take up next. His dissertation, called “Bodies at War: Animals, Science, and National Security in the United States,” the FBI has called a threat to national security. We’ll ask Ryan Shapiro why. Stay with us.