activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Tag: freedom of information act

judge orders that names of school of the americas students and instructors be released

The School of the Americas (SOA) was created in Panama and moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. It trained military leaders from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere in combat and counter-insurgency techniques. Hundreds of the SOA’s graduates went on to become human rights abusers, bolstering military dictatorships by killing, torturing, or otherwise suppressing political opponents.

For example, a majority of the individuals implicated in the 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador were soldiers who had been trained at the SOA. In response, SOA Watch was formed in 1990 to raise awareness regarding the SOA’s activities. In 2000, the SOA was “replaced” by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), which opened in late 2001.

In 2004, after 10 years of releasing the names of SOA/WHINSEC students and instructors to SOA Watch, the Department of Defense (DOD) reversed this longstanding practice. SOA Watch sued under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain such names. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled yesterday that the DOD improperly withheld the requested names, because of “the strong public interest in access to this information.”

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leslie james pickering to sue the government for refusing to release records

An attorney representing Leslie James Pickering is preparing to file a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the U.S. Postal Service for their failure to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. After filing FOIA requests in mid-September and appealing the government’s failure to respond, Pickering will soon be following in the footsteps of Marie Mason’s attorney, Susan Tipograph. Tipograph filed a similar lawsuit on February 25, seeking access to documents related to Mason.

Pickering was a founder of and spokesperson for the North American Earth Liberation Front Press Office, edited the Press Office’s journal, and has written two books. He lives in Buffalo, New York. The bookstore he co-owns produced two short videos on FOIA requests and provides sample requests and appeals.

marie mason’s attorney sues the department of justice for refusing to release records

Susan Tipograph, who represents incarcerated activist Marie Mason, filed a lawsuit last week against the Department of Justice (DOJ). She’s seeking access to documents related to Mason for the time period of January 26, 1962 to November 7, 2011. On December 22, 2011, Tipograph sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for such documents to the FBI – an agency of the DOJ – with a privacy waiver signed by Mason authorizing disclosure of the documents.

Mason had accepted a non-cooperating plea bargain in September 2008 related to the role she played in damaging property, specifically logging equipment and a university office used for research on genetically modified organisms. Although neither action injured anyone, she was sentenced in February 2009 to just under 22 years in federal prison. After spending nearly a month in segregation at the Federal Corrections Unit in Waseca, Minnesota, she was reclassified and transferred to a “control-management”-type prison unit in Carswell, Texas.

On March 22, 2012, the FBI informed Tipograph that the documents she requested were located in a file that was exempt from disclosure. Approximately one month later, Tipograph unsuccessfully appealed. Her lawsuit, in which she is represented by attorney Jeff Light, states that the FBI has invoked the same exemption in response to other FOIA requests regarding activists or journalists (e.g., Josh Harper and Will Potter), claiming they can’t disclose the documents because they conveniently placed them in an exempt file.

judge denies freedom of information act request by attorney with leonard peltier’s defense team

A federal judge last Friday refused a request by Michael Kuzma, an attorney with Leonard Peltier’s defense team, to review more than 900 pages of FBI documents related to Frank Blackhorse. Blackhorse was among the roughly 24 American Indian Movement members or supporters the FBI identified as having participated, on June 26, 1975, in a fatal shootout with two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. More than seven months later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Peltier, Blackhorse, and Ronald Blackman approximately 160 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta.

After Peltier’s arrest and extradition to the U.S., he was convicted – following an unfair trial in 1977 – of killing both FBI agents during the June 1975 firefight. (Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were tried for the same crime and acquitted, having been allowed to present a political defense, while Peltier was fighting extradition.) Blackhorse faced no extradition effort, even though he was apparently sought for questioning as to the shootout and under indictment for non-fatally shooting a federal agent at Wounded Knee during the 71-day occupation in 1973. As a result, Kuzma suspects Blackhorse may have provided information to law enforcement officials.

Whether or not Kuzma’s suspicion is correct, the judge’s denial of his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is troublesome. Such requests are one of a limited range of options for activists or their attorneys to attempt to discover or verify FBI misdeeds. They have been used, for example, in the successful cases following the false prosecution of Geronimo Pratt and the police assassination of Fred Hampton.

Indeed, after a FOIA suit in 1981, Peltier’s defense team received roughly 12,000 pages of documents, including exculpatory material not provided to Peltier before or during his trial. Due to the judge’s decision on Friday, Kuzma has been forced to file new FOIA requests, which can languish for years before the government might have to produce anything. According to a Buffalo News article in February, the FOIA request on which the judge ruled last Friday “dates back to 2004 and is the latest in a series of court actions designed to pry loose secret government documents.”