The FBI has been regarded as one of the worst compliers of public records requests since the earliest days of the Freedom of Information Act. Ask any of its most “vexsome” requesters and they’ll tell you, the bureau’s unofficial, when-in-doubt-cross-it-out policy of the mid-1970s was never really put to rest. More recently, it’s even been sanctioned for flat-out lying in federal court about whether or not certain documents exist.
For this reason alone, it’s impossible to know with any real certainty whether the FBI was telling the truth last month when it claimed to have misplaced documents concerning Stormfront, one of the internet’s oldest white supremacist forums – a website whose members, according to a 2014 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have been linked to nearly 100 murders.
Emma Best, a journalist with the transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets, filed a request seeking access to the FBI’s Stormfront files using Muckrock more than two years ago.
A response finally arrived on June 19: While the agency was prepared to turn over 104 “preprocessed” pages—material that was already made public at some point in the past—other documents, which it knows to exist, could not be found.
(Disclosure: Best has also contributed reporting on WikiLeaks for Gizmodo.)
In a letter, the FBI said that a search of its central records system showed that there were “additional records” likely connected to Stormfront, but that efforts by officials to hunt them down repeatedly turned up nothing.
“We were advised that the potentially responsive records were not in their expected location and could not be located after a reasonable search,” the FBI’s records office said.
After an initial attempt to locate the files failed, the bureau said it waited a “reasonable” period before trying again. Alas, the subsequent effort was likewise met with “unsuccessful results.”
In an appeal letter, Best sharply chided the agency over what she called a “ghastly and inexcusable” failure. “You should feel ashamed of yourself. The kind of ashamed you feel when a parent uses your full name in that tone, you know the one.” she wrote. She then signed the letter with the complimentary close, “Hugs and kisses.”
In a text message to Gizmodo on Wednesday, Best wrote, “Stormfront is a community of white nationalists and neo-Nazis that’s been tied to terrorist attacks in Europe and has a strong presence in the United States. If the FBI lost the file or files on this group, then they may well have lost important information on a forum that not only connects extremists across the world, but gives them a way to coordinate.”
As has been mentioned, it’s hard to say whether or not the files requested by Best are actually missing. The FBI’s handling of FOIA requests at times can be described as grossly inept, if not downright absurd.
— Ryan Shapiro (@_rshapiro) June 20, 2019
Ryan Shapiro, for instance, a former research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, once requested access to FBI records concerning the FBI’s process for indexing records. Last month, it replied that none could be found.
The FBI declined to comment.