Researcher Sues the FBI Over Blocked FOIA Requests

Government agencies routinely refuse to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests because of legally sanctioned exemptions to disclosure of records.[1] But sometimes the government goes too far. An MIT researcher and student recently filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for its systematic denial of FOIA requests, alleging that the FBI purposely uses an out-of-date computer system to search for records.[2] The agency knows that searches in the old system routinely produce no results, researcher Ryan Shapiro says, and it does not run the searches in its newer system, known as Sentinel.[3] Shapiro sued under the FOIA’s provision that permits lawsuits against the federal government to obtain FOIA information after exhausting administrative appeals. The suit alleges that documents were improperly withheld and that Shapiro was improperly denied a fee waiver.[4]

Notably, Shapiro sued in part to obtain records related to the FBI’s processing of Shapiro’s previous FOIA requests.[5] And this isn’t the first time the FBI had refused to turn over records showing their response to FOIA requests. It had previously argued that information about the reasons for denying such requests was itself secret.[6]

Further, in a previous suit filed by Shapiro, a judge agreed that the FBI’s response to FOIA requests was “fundamentally at odds with the statute,” noting that it was improper for the FBI to withhold entire categories of documents just because some documents in the category might be protected.[7] Shapiro’s current suit is pending before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.[8]

While aging computer equipment and systems plus IT staff fleeing to work in the private sector could be contributing to the government’s general lag in responding to and outright denial of FOIA requests,[9] in at least some instances, agencies may be actually impeding public access to information.



— By Julia Damron, Esq., Barnes Law

Julia Damron is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in California.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] See

[2] Noyes, Katherine, “The FBI is using outdated IT to foil FOIA requests, lawsuit alleges”,, Jul. 18, 2016,; Loten, Angus, “FBI Blocking FOIA Requests With Aging IT, Lawsuit Alleges”, Wall Street Journal CIO Journal, Jul. 22, 2016,

[3] Id.

[4] Shapiro v. Dept. of Justice, No. 1:16-cv-01399-RDM (D.C. July 4, 2016), Compl. at p. 9, available at:

[5] Id. at pp. 6-7; Noyes, supra.

[6] Thielman, Sam, “Judge rules FBI unlawfully refused to comply with information act requests”, The Guardian, Jan. 30, 2016,

[7] Id.; Noyes, supra.

[8] Shapiro, supra.

[9] Loten, supra.