WASHINGTON – A federal judge hastened completion of a documentary decades in the making about the FBI’s role in the Vietnam anti-war movement Thursday by ordering the agency to churn out nearly 3,000 pages of documents a month.
According to an internal policy, the FBI was only releasing requested records in chunks of 500 at a time to Nina Gilden Seavey, a filmmaker and professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.
At that rate, it would have taken nearly 17 years for the agency to hand over all 102,385 documents it says it found in response to numerous Freedom of Information Act requests she started filing in 2013.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler’s ruling issued Thursday called the FBI’s policy “untenable.”
For Seavey, the prospect of waiting nearly two decades for the information needed to complete her film was daunting.
“I’m 60 years old,” Seavey said in a phone interview. “I mean, let’s be real,” she added, trailing off with laughter.
Seavey had asked the FBI for information on “individuals, organizations, events, publications, and file numbers” relating to the agency’s involvement in the anti-war movement, looking particularly at St. Louis in the 1960s and 1970s.
She will use the records to complete “My Fugitive,” a film she’s already been working on for decades.
The FBI had argued that its policy is ideal, fair and necessary to meet the growing demands of FOIA requests, which are increasing in number, size and complexity.
It also said its 500-page-per-month policy prevented large requests from monopolizing its limited resources, which the agency said would hamper its ability to process smaller ones.
But these arguments failed to persuade Judge Kessler, who said they lacked merit.
“In the name of reducing its own administrative headaches, the FBI’s 500-page policy ensures that larger requests are subject to an interminable delay in being completed,” she wrote in a 12-page ruling. “Under the 500-page policy, requestors must wait 1 year for every 6,000 potentially responsive documents, and those who request tens of thousands of documents may wait decades.”
Based on the number of documents the FBI said it could process, Kessler found that the agency failed to show that handling large requests more expediently would prevent it from fulfilling smaller ones.
“If the FBI truly has the capacity to process 17,000,000 pages per year, it is hard to understand how a request for 100,000 pages (or even several such requests) could monopolize its workload,” the opinion states. “If that is the case, then the FBI’ s steadfast determination to make Professor Seavey wait decades for documents to which she is statutorily entitled is simply incomprehensible.” (Parentheses in original.)
Kessler ordered the FBI to start processing Seavey’s request at a rate of at least 2,850 pages per month.
Seavey said she believes Kessler’s willingness to tackle the FBI’s 500-page-per-month processing policy head-on will benefit other FOIA requesters.
“Yesterday’s ruling is precedent for all of these future cases,” Seavey said.
In a prior ruling in May, Kessler had granted Seavey’s request for a fee waiver. Without that, she would have been on the hook for thousands of dollars to get the documents.
“I kind of thought that was our big win,” Seavey said. “Where would I get thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to pay the government for documents that should be readily available to the American public.”
Seavey said that she is thrilled with the latest ruling, which will enable her to get her hands on all of the documents in three years instead of 17.
“It was literally the shot of adrenaline that the film needed,” Seavey said. “This is the hastening that a filmmaker needs. If we had continued with the 500 pages a month, it literally would have brought production to a halt.”
On a daily basis, Seavey said she pours over the documents the FBI has already given her.
“Literally every day I am finding things that are gobsmacking about the government’s activities,” she said, adding that some of what she’s found relates to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, she declined to give specifics.
The FBI declined to comment on the ruling.
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