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Federal appeals court rules FBI can withhold racial surveillance information

The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] on Wednesday ruled [opinion, PDF] that the FBI [official website] is not required to disclose documents regarding its use of ethnic and racial information. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking the disclosure of those documents, but the district court held that the information sought was exempt from the disclosure requirement. The Third Circuit noted that FBI investigations vary greatly in sensitivity based on location and circumstances. Moreover, the court agreed that disclosure of information would adversely affect current FBI investigations by notifying and alerting targets: "It is hard to imagine how the FBI could provide a more detailed justification for withholding information under this exemption without compromising the very information it sought to protect." The ACLU had asked FBI to disclose the information at issue in 2008 and FBI had released 312 of 782 pages while withholding 284 pages as exempt from disclosure.

In September the ACLU had released a report [JURIST report] claiming that the FBI powers have expanded rapidly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks [JURIST backgrounder]. The report states that the FBI's excessive secrecy has limited oversight and stated that "it took unauthorized leaks by a whistleblower to finally reveal the government's secret interpretation of these laws and the Orwellian scope of its domestic surveillance programs." The revelations surrounding US surveillance programs have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. Last month the Council of Europe [official website] expressed concern [JURIST report] over the UK reaction to the exposure of the US surveillance program. In June the ACLU in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] filed suit [JURIST report] against the National Security Agency (NSA) [official website] challenging its recently revealed phone data collection. Although the president and top officials have defended the surveillance as a lawful counterterrorism measure, several US lawmakers have called for a review [JURIST report] of the government's surveillance activity in light of recent reports revealing phone and Internet monitoring. Lawmakers have also called for a criminal investigation into the activities of Edward Snowden, who came forward in early June as the whistleblower in the NSA surveillance scandal [JURIST podcast].

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