The FBI must provide information from Seth Rich’s laptop computer to a Texas man, a federal judge ruled on Nov. 28.
The bureau’s attempt to challenge an earlier order to produce the information failed to persuade U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant, who said the bureau’s assertions of exemptions to a federal law were unsupported.
The FBI claimed that Mr. Rich’s family members had a privacy interest in the information that outweighed the public interest, a claim Judge Mazzant rejected. But the bureau said in a motion for reconsideration that he did not appear to weigh exemptions in FOIA that would allow the agency to keep withholding the information, and the judge placed a hold on his ruling until he weighed in on the motion.
One exemption lets agencies keep secret information that would “reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source ... which furnished information on a confidential basis.”
Local law enforcement provided images of Mr. Rich’s personal laptop to the FBI.
Under court precedent, the question is whether a source understood that communication it delivered would remain confidential.
The FBI said in a filing that the bureau “inferred these personnel provided this information to the FBI with an expectation their involvement in the investigation, and the information they provided, would remain confidential due to the following: 1) the information and assistance provided would disclose their agency’s law enforcement techniques, or details about law enforcement techniques, that are not publicly known; and 2) the information provided in some instances concerns the law enforcement agency’s own confidential sources.”
Judge Mazzant said that the bureau was suggesting the FBI be able to keep its source confidential because its source’s source was confidential. “However, the FBI provides no explanation for why the ultimate source is confidential,” he said.
Court precedent means agencies have to justify exerting the exemption.
“An agency may not justify its assertion of Exemption 7(D) by claiming that its source’s source was confidential without further explanation. To show an implied assurance of confidentiality, the FBI must demonstrate an inference of confidentiality based on narrowly defined circumstances. However, narrowly defined circumstances cannot consist solely of describing an agency’s source as having a confidential source,” the judge said.
The bureau also claimed that its source could face “violent reprisal” were the computer information to be given to Brian Huddleston, the Texas man. But Judge Mazzant noted that the bureau provided no explanation of how disclosing the information would lead to the source facing reprisal.
Another FOIA exemption allows an agency to shield information if disclosure would “disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”
The bureau argued that handing over the records “would disclose the identity of methods used in the collection and analysis of information, including how and from where the FBI collects information and the methods employed to analyze it once collected.”
In order to back up that argument, court precedent requires an agency to “demonstrate logically how the release of the requested information might create a risk of circumvention of the law.” The FBI did not do so, Judge Mazzant said.
The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Ty Clevenger, an attorney representing Mr. Huddleston, told The Epoch Times.
He also indicated the FBI would need to produce the images it has from the computer.
“Neither of these requests is appropriate,” Judge Mazzant said. “Therefore, the court orders the FBI and Huddleston to provide a suggested timeline for the disclosure of documents.”
The government has said previously that the images it has from Mr. Rich’s personal computer comprise some 400,000 pages, not including pictures and video.
However, a letter from a third party that was with the laptop, chain of custody forms, and a three-page report detailing what the third party did with the laptop are able to be withheld because the FBI sufficiently explained how those documents can be shielded under FOIA, the judge ruled.