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WILLIAMS v. FBI

May 17, 1993

DONALD WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES R. RICHEY

 UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 The Defendants in the above-captioned Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") case have filed a Revised Motion for Summary Judgment. At issue in the case is whether the Defendants have conducted an adequate search for documents responsive to the Plaintiff's FOIA request, and whether certain withheld documents fall within FOIA exemptions relating to law enforcement records. Upon consideration of the Defendants' Revised Motion for Summary Judgment, the Plaintiff's opposition thereto, the applicable law, and the record herein, the Court must grant the Defendants' Motion because the Defendants have now conducted an adequate search for responsive documents and have demonstrated that the withheld documents fall within FOIA exemptions (b)(7)(C) and (b)(7)(D).

 I. BACKGROUND

 The Plaintiff served as the Minister of Defense of the Afro Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The FBI considered the Afro Set "a black extremist organization" which sought the "complete take-over and control of the Black community" and promoted "hatred of white people and outside authority." Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, First Declaration of Regina Superneau, Exhibit 2, Part I, Doc. 8-96 at *2 ("First Superneau Declaration"). Because the Plaintiff was "an officer in an active black extremist group," the FBI initiated an investigation in 1970. First Superneau Declaration, Exhibit 2, Part I, Doc. 1.

 In April and May of 1989, the Plaintiff requested all records pertaining to him in the files of the FBI Headquarters ("FBIHQ"), FBI's Cleveland Field Office ("CVFO"), and FBI's Cincinnati Field Office ("CIFO"). The CIFO found only one two-page document that referenced the Plaintiff, and withheld this document. See Complaint, Exhibit D. The CVFO search yielded a document that referenced the Plaintiff, which was also withheld. CVFO also disclosed the existence of an investigative file concerning the Plaintiff, but referred this file to FBIHQ for processing. See Complaint, Exhibit N. The Plaintiff was informed that 377 pages of material were in the FBIHQ file, and that 200 pages would be released, either in whole or in part. See Complaint, Exhibit K. The Plaintiff appealed the decisions of FBIHQ, CVFO and CIFO, and the Department of Justice Office and Information and Privacy (OIP) denied these appeals. The Plaintiff filed the instant suit shortly thereafter.

 Pursuant to the Court's August 6, 1991 Order, the Defendants filed a more complete Vaughn index on September 30, 1991, together with a Third Declaration from Regina Superneau. The Plaintiff opposed the Motion for Summary Judgment and again challenged the adequacy of the Government's search and the completeness of the revised Vaughn index. Plaintiff filed four exhibits under seal, each of which the FBI allegedly did not produce despite the fact that each document mentioned the Plaintiff by name. According to the Plaintiff, these exhibits illustrated the inadequacy of the Defendants' search. Acknowledging the discrepancies in the record pointed out by the Plaintiff, the Court ordered the Defendants to account for what appeared to be the absence of two amended pages pertaining to Documents 26 and 28. See Williams v. FBI, Civ. 90-2299, slip op. (D.D.C. Dec. 13, 1991). The Court also directed the Defendants to explain why certain documents responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request, which Plaintiff unearthed through his own investigation, did not appear to be produced or acknowledged by the Defendants in the Vaughn indices. Id.

 On December 22, 1991, the Defendants filed a Fourth Declaration of Regina Superneau to address the Court's concerns regarding the agency's good faith and the adequacy of the agency's search. The Court subsequently denied the Defendants' initial Motion for Summary Judgment, without prejudice, because of the Defendants' failure to adequately explain why documents located in a search of the "reference" files at CVFO were not identifiable to the Plaintiff, as the Defendants claimed. See Williams v. FBI, Civ. 90-2299, slip op. (D.D.C. Apr. 13, 1992). The Court directed the Defendants to either produce the documents found through the search of the CVFO "see reference" files or explain why those documents were not identifiable to the Plaintiff. The Court also directed the Defendants to conduct a search of the "see reference" files at FBIHQ and CIFO, as well as any other files likely to contain documents responsive to the Plaintiff's initial FOIA request.

 On May 27, 1992, the Defendant filed the Declaration of Angus Llewellyn ("Llewellyn Declaration"), setting forth the search of the "see reference" files as required by this Court's April 13, 1992, Order. For the search of the "see reference" files, the Defendants used the name of the Plaintiff, all of his known aliases, his position title ("Minister of Defense") with the Afro Set organization, his birthdate, birthplace, and social security number. Declaration of P. Grant Harmon, Jr., at 3 ("Harmon Declaration"). No new documents were discovered in the search of the "see reference" files of CIFO and CVFO. The FBIHQ search yielded thirty-six additional "see references" identifiable to the Plaintiff, three of which were contained in documents that had been sent from CVFO. Llewellyn Declaration at 2-3. The additional material was released, with certain redactions. The Defendants conducted a final search of all FBI records involving national organizations of which the Plaintiff might have been a member. Harmon Declaration at 4-5. The search revealed no new references identifiable with the Plaintiff.

 On October 16, 1992, the Defendants filed a Revised Motion for Summary Judgment, asserting that the search for responsive documents was adequate, and the documents withheld in part or in whole fell within FOIA exemptions (b)(7)(C) and (b)(7)(D). The Plaintiff opposed the Motion, challenging the adequacy of the Defendants' search and asking the Court to conduct an in camera review of the withheld documents. The Court must first address the adequacy of the search, and then considers the validity of the exemptions claimed by the Defendants.

 II. THE DEFENDANTS HAVE CONDUCTED A REASONABLE SEARCH FOR DOCUMENTS RESPONSIVE TO PLAINTIFF'S FOIA REQUEST.

 The first question that the Court must consider is whether the search conducted by the Defendants for documents responsive to the Plaintiff's request was adequate. "The agency must show that it made a good faith effort to conduct a search for the requested records, using methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested." Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of the Army, 287 U.S. App. D.C. 126, 920 F.2d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990). In demonstrating the adequacy of the search, the Defendants may rely upon reasonably detailed affidavits submitted in good faith indicating that the extent and execution of the search were reasonable under the facts of the case. Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 240 U.S. App. D.C. 339, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984).

 In this case, the Defendants submitted in connection with their Revised Motion for Summary Judgment a number of Declarations by various officials familiar with the processing of FOIA requests. The Declarations indicate that the Defendant has now searched the General Indices of the FBI's Central Record System for CVFO, CIFO, and FBIHQ, for all information containing the name Donald Williams, variations of that name, aliases, and other possible identifiers. The retrieved information, both from ...


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