Just after Thanksgiving 2019, I filed a FOIA with the FBI seeking any records the Bureau had on 76 civil society organizations. Among those was the National Security Archive, one of the oldest and most respected FOIA watchdog organizations in the country. The Archive files a multitude of FOIAs every year, publishing both the documents and their analysis of them on their website. They are, by definition, a public interest and government oversight nonprofit, and their prodigious use of FOIA is exactly the kind of citizen oversight model Moss undoubtedly had in mind when he got the first version of FOIA into law.
Eleven months after I filed my FOIA on the Archive, the FBI released 46 partially declassified documents on the organization while withholding two others in their entirety on “national security” grounds. The documents I did receive, despite being heavily or nearly completely redacted in many cases, were revelatory.
The Bureau’s interest in the Archive dates to at least September 14, 1989, as on that date then‐FBI Director William Sessions sent a cable classified SECRET to the FBI’s Washington Field Office directing “that intelligence division obtain additional information regarding the National Security Archive from appropriate Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIPA) components within FBI-HQ.” Sessions claimed that “the primary source of the organization’s tenacity in using FOIPA regulations” was attributable to the fact that “a former Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney and…a former Washington Post reporter” were on the Archive’s staff.
The former DOJ attorney in question was Quinlan J. Shea, who had joined the Archive and helped litigate the famous National Security Archive v Archivist of the United States case. The former Washington Post reporter was Scott Armstrong, a founder of the Archive and co‐author (with Bob Woodward) of the book on the Supreme Court, The Brethren. Sessions’ comment conveyed the sense of threat he and FBI senior leadership clearly felt via the Archive and its work.
The remaining documents I received span the period from 1989 through at least August 2004 and indicate the FBI monitored the Archive’s activities throughout this period, such as its interest in and public events commemorating major Cold War milestones, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and related U.S.-Cuba interactions. The FBI monitoring also appears to have involved electronic and/or physical surveillance and possibly the use of “mail covers” by the Postal Service.
A heavily redacted July 31, 1990 FBI HQ memorandum previously classified SECRET notes near the end of the memo: “A copy of the above described envelopes is attached and made a part of this memorandum.” The attached material itself was withheld by the FBI, but the mention of envelopes, and the SECRET classification, almost certainly mean a “mail cover” of mail to or from the Archive was involved.
A February 21, 1996 memo from an unidentified FBI Language Specialist (abbreviated L.S. in the memo) to an unidentified series of Washington Field Office recipients passed along “Positive Intelligence” from “an extremely sensitive and reliable source of continuing value” that referenced the Archive in some fashion; the actual foreign language (almost certainly Spanish) language attachment was withheld by the FBI. The language of the document strongly suggests, based on the author’s review of hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI material spanning several decades, that the “extremely sensitive and reliable source” was a wiretap.
A heavily redacted previously SECRET September 11, 1997 Boston Field Office memo dealing with the Archive in some fashion had no less than 24 other field offices and FBI HQ on the distribution list.
A heavily redacted March 13, 2003 SECRET/ORCON/NOFORN investigative memo from the National Security Investigative Services to the Washington Field Office referenced also referenced a “CI-8” as an addressee; CI in FBI reports is shorthand for counterintelligence, in this case the CI-8 squad of the Washington Field Office. That same memo noted that the preliminary investigation had commenced March 29, 2002 and had been renewed three times up to the date of the memo.