FOIA requests show U.S. FBI could be spying on advocacy groups

Access Now joins 17 civil society groups urging Congressional committee to investigate

Access Now joined 17 civil society groups in a letter yesterday to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee calling for an investigation into potential Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) domestic surveillance of Access Now and other advocacy organizations operating in the U.S. The agency has a history of misusing powers intended for foreign intelligence to conduct surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Out of a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the FBI covering more than 200 U.S.-based advocacy organizations, the FBI returned “Glomar” responses on only eight (including Access Now). Glomar responses are used when the FBI could “neither confirm nor deny,” with respect to the organizations above, “the existence of any national security or foreign intelligence records responsive to your request because the existence or nonexistence of any such responsive records is currently and properly classified.”

A single Glomar response on its own may not be cause for alarm, but the situation here — FOIA requests for eight out of more than 200 organizations — raises at least the question of whether these organizations have been targeted by the FBI for domestic surveillance. It is that question Access Now and others would like the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate.

“The results of these FOIA requests are alarming, and if Access Now or any other domestic advocacy organization has been the target of domestic surveillance, especially for protected speech activities, Congress and the American people deserve to know,” said Eric Null, U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now. “We hope the Senate Judiciary Committee acts quickly to find answers.”

Access Now and signatories call on the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate whether the FBI is targeting these organizations in the absence of a legitimate criminal investigative predicate and is using the Glomar exception, or other dubious FOIA evasion tactics, to conceal that activity from the public and the courts.