US Marshals Service Withholds Publicly-Available Data From Its Stingray Device FOIA Response

Overclassification and abuse of FOIA exemptions is a given with most of our nation’s security/law enforcement agencies. Two agencies — the DHS and the FBI — both redacted publicly-available information on drone possession and usage. Why? Because no one will stop them. Public accountability isn’t something these agencies embrace. Their real love is secrecy, obfuscation and an allegiance to the eternal protection of “techniques and procedures,” even when the information has already been disseminated elsewhere.

MuckRock’s Phil Mocek recently received responsive documents from the US Marshals Service on its Stingray usage. The Marshals Service is notoriously secretive about the Stingrays in its law enforcement stable and is equally infamous for the thug-like tactics it has deployed to hide documents from public records requests.

So protective is it of this information that its response to Mocek jumped the secrecy shark. Hidden behind the numerous black redaction bars is information freely available on an official government website.

While it appears the USMS is not under any nondisclosure agreement with the device manufacturer, the agency has withheld a wide range of basic information under an exemption meant to protect law enforcement techniques. However, much of the redacted data is already available online via a federal accounting website…

Particular item names and descriptions are universally redacted throughout the documents. But released invoices and purchase orders indicate that USMS spending on cell site simulators and related services totaled nearly $10 million between September 2009 and April 2014.

As MuckRock’s Shawn Musgrave points out, this information deemed too sensitive to be released to a FOIA requester can be found at the General Services Administration’s website. The GSA handles a majority of government contracts and, as a government entity, is only allowed to display information deemed suitable for public consumption. The same information withheld by the US Marshals Service has been previously cleared for release on the GSA’s site.

An overabundance of caution by the US Marshals Service? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just accustomed to throwing plenty of black ink around when fielding FOIA requests. Either way, this withholding of publicly-available data suggests one thing: the USMS’s justification for blotting out this info doesn’t mean shit.

Extensive redactions throughout the document cache are made under a provision in the federal Freedom of Information Act — exemption (b)(7)(E), for the FOIA nerds — meant to protect law enforcement information.

Specifically, per the Justice Department’s own guidelines, this exemption covers information that “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions”, or that “would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

The trouble is, much of the information blacked out by USMS FOIA officers is already available online to the general public, and hardly qualifies as law enforcement information as defined in this provision.

It’s not that the US Marshals Service doesn’t understand the correct deployment of FOIA exemptions. It just doesn’t care. How a dollar amount can be both publicly-available through the GSA and a too-sensitive-for-the-public “technique or procedure” will never be explained by the wilfully opaque law enforcement agency. At best, it will suggest the redaction was an error. But more likely, it will be happy to stay quiet on the issue and allow the BS exemptions to speak for themselves.

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