While cataloging the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s efforts to spy on political activists, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Ryan Shapiro discovered a redacted FBI document, first uncovered by investigative journalist Jason Leopold in 2011, which detailed a plot the bureau had discovered by an unknown individual to “gather intelligence against the leaders of the [Occupy Houston] protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership [of the protests] via suppressed sniper rifles.” The Houston Chronicle notes that the would-be assassin’s name has been redacted from the FBI file.
Shapiro first asked the FBI for more documents on the plot back in 2013, but was told that no such documents exist. He then filed suit, forcing the FBI to acknowledge that it has 17 pages worth of documents on the matter. At that time, FBI officials released five redacted pages but refused to release the other 12, claiming that doing so could threaten the privacy of law enforcement officials and expose undercover sources embedded within violent criminal organizations.
VICE notes that, at first, FBI Freedom of Information Act specialist David Hardy attempted to invoke a national security exemption pertaining to a terrorism investigation into activities by Occupy Houston as his rationale for refusing to release the documents, which Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the US District Court for the District of Columbia rejected, saying, “At no point does Mr. Hardy supply specific facts as to the basis for the FBI’s belief that the Occupy protestors [sic] might have been engaged in terroristic or other criminal activity… Neither the word ‘terrorism’ nor the phrase ‘advocating the overthrow of the government’ are talismanic, especially where FBI purports to be investigating individuals who ostensibly are engaged in protected First Amendment activity.”
According to Courthouse News Service, Shapiro claims that the FBI’s assertion that it was investigating Occupy Houston contradicts a previous FBI statement. Said Shapiro, “The FBI even flatly asserted in a separate FOIA lawsuit of mine that, ‘(T)he FBI determined that it had never opened an investigation on the Occupy movement.'”
However, Judge Collyer did, in the end, rule in favor of the FBI’s claim that the remaining 12 confidential pages from the report are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests and that their release would threaten the privacy of law enforcement agents working on the case, would interfere with an investigation, and would expose confidential sources, possibly leading to retaliation against them.
Said Shapiro of the ruling, “I’m of course disappointed in, and disagree with, the judge’s ruling. I’m now conferring with my attorney to determine next steps… We are coming ever closer to finally forcing the FBI to concede it actually possesses a large volume of documents about this FBI-coordinated nationwide investigation of political protesters as supposed terroristic threats to national security.”
While Shapiro’s motive in uncovering the documents is to discover what information the FBI has been capturing on Occupy protesters who have never been accused or suspected of a crime, journalist Dave Lindorff wondered aloud about the documents’ implications in an article on WhoWhatWhy.org, asking, “Did the FBI ignore, or even abet, a plot to assassinate Occupy Houston leaders?” Noted Lindorff, “Solid information about an assassination plot against American citizens exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and assembly never led to exposure of the plotters’ identity or an arrest.”