Cato Institute v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CATO INSTITUTE, Plaintiff, v. Civil Action No. 20-3338 (JEB) FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, et al., Defendants. MEMORANDUM OPINION Plaintiff Cato Institute, a non-profit public-policy research organization, brought this Freedom of Information Act suit in relation to a request that it sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation seeking records about itself. In its request, Plaintiff included a short list of terms that it wanted the FBI to use in its search, as well as particular databases and locations that it wished to be searched. In competing Motions for Summary Judgment, the parties now focus on whether the search the FBI conducted — which did not include some of the databases Plaintiff requested — was adequate and whether the Bureau properly withheld certain documents it uncovered. The Court, satisfied with the more specific supplemental declaration that the FBI recently provided and its own in camera review, is persuaded that Defendant conducted an adequate search and properly applied FOIA exemptions to its withholdings. Judgment in its favor is thus warranted. I. Background On December 11, 2019, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute submitted a FOIA request to the FBI seeking “any records regarding the Cato Institute.” ECF No. 26-4 (Def. SMF), ¶ 1. 1 That request asked the FBI to employ specific search terms in its hunt for responsive documents, including “Cato,” “Cato Institute,” “The Cato Institute,” “Cato Benefactor,” “Cato employee,” and “Cato contractor,” as well as a handful of other terms such as “Wikileaks,” “Immigration,” and “Encryption,” among others, to “be utilized[] in a separate search[] in combination with the search terms above.” Id.; ECF No. 28-2 (Pl. SMF), ¶ 2. The request also identified specific locations to be included in the FBI’s search — notably, FBI field offices and “the FBI Guardian database or any related or successor systems.” Def. SMF, ¶ 1. Notwithstanding the Institute’s request that specific FBI databases and locations be searched, the Bureau determined that its Central Records System (CRS) would be the system “where all records responsive to Plaintiff’s request would reasonably be found.” ECF No. 30-1 (Second Declaration of Michael G. Seidel), ¶ 5 (emphasis added); see also ECF No. 26-1 (Declaration of Michael G. Seidel), ¶ 11 (initially stating that “the CRS is the FBI system of records where responsive records could reasonably be expected to be found”) (emphasis added). The CRS database “spans the entire FBI organization and encompasses the records of FBIHQ, FBI field offices, and FBI legal attaché offices (‘legats’) worldwide.” 1st Seidel Decl., ¶ 12. The FBI also manages the Guardian Program, which is a separate system “for reporting, sharing, tracking, and mitigating a large volume of counterterrorism-based incidents.” 2d Seidel Decl., ¶ 6. All Guardian records are indexed within the CRS. Id. at 3. Based on leads found in the search of CRS, Defendant also searched the digitized versions of the manual indices of eleven field offices. See 1st Seidel Decl., ¶ 25 & n.7. The FBI’s search …

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