Advocates look to deepen FOIA collaboration to combat surveillance secrecy

The secrecy surrounding government surveillance has been a long-standing challenge for those working to defend against threats to Americans’ privacy, civil liberties and civil rights. Under the Trump Administration, advocates working on these issues have identified a growing need for greater transparency and accountability relating to government surveillance practices. There is a strong need to know, for example, how intelligence agencies are sharing information with the FBI and domestic law enforcement agencies, and the impact this has on the criminal justice system.

Open The Government recently held a town hall event that brought together open government leaders, criminal justice experts, privacy advocates, researchers, FOIA specialists, and journalists, to discuss ways to confront these secrecy challenges. The town hall was held during the height of the ongoing debate over reauthorization of the NSA’s controversial spying authority – Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – which is set to expire at year’s end. Secrecy surrounding the use of Section 702 data by the FBI and law enforcement has become a central focus in efforts to reform the law.

Participants also discussed the secrecy concerns relating to the FBI’s use of the new “Black Identity Extremist” (BIE) label, which has raised a number of accountability issues, including the chilling effect the label is having on social organizing. The ACLU and Center for Media Justice have filed a FOIA for more information about this program, and speakers provided context on the antecedents to the BIE label. There is a long history of the FBI’s use of unconstitutional surveillance practices to target civil rights leaders and anti-war activists during the 1960s-70s, and the FISA was enacted in 1978 to safeguard against warrantless domestic spying for political purposes. The 2008 FISA amendments, which included Section 702, however, provided a “backdoor search loophole” for the FBI, giving the Bureau access to the massive intelligence database without a warrant.

The town hall provided a forum for experts to share successful cases where FOIA work has led to the disclosure of important information, including recently released documents that heighten concerns over the government collection of large amounts of data on Americans without warrants. The event also underscored the need for a guide that highlights best practices, and includes up-to-date case studies and recommendations on how to best plan FOIA strategies through collaborative efforts.

OTG plans to compile these best practices with the goal of providing a roadmap that we believe will be relevant for our partners working across a spectrum of government accountability issue areas. We invite our partners and members of the public to share their FOIA stories.

Please let us know if you have examples of what has worked and challenges you have faced as part of your collaborative FOIA efforts. We plan to make this widely available and hope it will be a useful tool to help guide more effective collaboration in FOIA campaigns.

To share your story, email Jesse Franzblau at