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FOIA Redaction Limbo: How Low They Will Go

One of the things most free governments around the world have historically admired about the United States is its willingness to open its file cabinets’ many drawers to its citizens upon request. Since the passage of the Patriot Act that followed the Twin Towers’ destruction on 9/11, however, that willingness to disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) by the government has become increasingly limited by congressional acts with whatever remains untouched steadily dwindling.

Journalist Emma Best has submitted enough FOIA requests that she is considered to be a “vexatious” requester, according to writer Tim Cushing. She has filed more than 1,600 FOIA requests with the FBI alone.

What the government often does is deny, dilute, and redact its responses in order to “secure the nation” and “protect the integrity of deliberative processes.”

AlphaBay was one of the many progenies of the dark web’s Silk Road, a clandestine URL site where anything from firearms, identities, and narcotics had been bought and sold. A U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) taskforce, combining elements of the DEA, FBI, and IRS, took down AlphaBay in 2017.

The DOJ issued a public statement about the operation and posted it online—just four paragraphs long and made openly and freely to the public.

Best submitted a FOIA request for the statement. The Secret Service responded, redacting the entire third paragraph after deeming it “too sensitive to be released to the general public.”

In its entirety, that redacted paragraph reads: “This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of the year – taking down the largest dark net marketplace in history,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Make no mistake, the forces of law and justice face a new challenge from the criminals and transnational criminal organizations who think they can commit their crimes with impunity using the dark net. The dark net is not a place to hide. The Department will continue to find, arrest, prosecute, convict, and incarcerate criminals, drug traffickers and their enablers wherever they are. We will use every tool we have to stop criminals from exploiting vulnerable people and sending so many Americans to an early grave. I believe that because of this operation, the American people are safer – safer from the threat of identity fraud and malware, and safer from deadly drugs.”

The reasoning behind the Secret Service decision to redact a statement like this defies logic. At worst, it places evildoers on notice of the DOJ’s resolve to put them out of business and in prison. If the U.S. Navy reasoned along those same inane lines, it would be ordering its submarines to be fitted with screen doors to keep its sailors cooler during their long undersea voyages. As for the Secret Service’s disingenuous redaction to Best’s FOIA request, she is pursuing an appeal. 


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