In a lapse that national security experts call baffling, a high-ranking FBI agent filed a sensitive internal manual detailing the bureau’s secret interrogation procedures with the Library of Congress, where anyone with a library card can read it.
For years, the American Civil Liberties Union fought a legal battle to force the FBI to release a range of documents concerning FBI guidelines, including this one, which covers the practices agents are supposed to employ when questioning suspects. Through all this, unbeknownst to the ACLU and the FBI, the manual sat in a government archive open to the public. When the FBI finally relented and provided the ACLU a version of the interrogation guidebook last year, it was heavily redacted; entire pages were blacked out. But the version available at the Library of Congress, which a Mother Jones reporter reviewed last week, contains no redactions.
The 70-plus-page manual ended up in the Library of Congress, thanks to its author, an FBI official who made an unexplainable mistake. This FBI supervisory special agent, who once worked as a unit chief in the FBI’s counterterrorism division, registered a copyright for the manual in 2010 and deposited a copy with the US Copyright Office, where members of the public can inspect it upon request. What’s particularly strange about this episode is that government documents cannot be copyrighted.
“A document that has not been released does not even need a copyright,” says Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “Who is going to plagiarize from it? Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t violate the copyright because you don’t have the document. It isn’t available.”
“The whole thing is a comedy of errors,” he adds. “It sounds like gross incompetence and ignorance.”
Julian Sanchez, a fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute who has studied copyright policy, was harsher: “Do they not cover this in orientation? [Sensitive] documents should not be placed in public repositories—and, by the way, aren’t copyrightable. How do you even get a clearance without knowing this stuff?”