A federal judge has asked a high-ranking official from the Justice Department’s Civil Division to appear at a hearing next month to explain why the department is fighting to keep an informant’s records private.
The case centers on information about the work civil rights photographer Ernest Withers did as an informant for the FBI. U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia Amy Berman Jackson asked in court this week why the department is fighting the Freedom of Information Act request for decades-old information on a deceased informant, according to a report in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
The Commercial Appeal sued in 2010 to access to the FBI’s file on Withers. The paper’s investigation of the photographer revealed that while he worked closely with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., he also reported on their plans and movements to the FBI. The FBI usually discloses the files on deceased public figures.
Berman asked that a top official from the Civil Division explain the rationale at a hearing next month. The National Law Journal has noted that Berman Jackson has been “largely adverse” to the government’s arguments in court so far.
“To protect the information, the government is going to have to establish in this courtroom, in 2012, that when the FBI spied on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King — fifty years ago — the ‘information was compiled for law enforcement purposes’ in the course of a criminal investigation,” Berman Jackson said, according to the National Law Journal. “I mean absolutely no disrespect to current counsel to suggest that this is a decision that needs to be made at the higher levels of the department… Who’s going to make that decision?”
A spokesman for the Justice Department told the Commercial Appeal the government had no comment on the latest hearing.