SEATTLE (AP) — A federal judge on Monday blocked Seattle from releasing information about surveillance cameras the FBI has placed in the city, after the agency said the disclosure could jeopardize ongoing investigations.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones issued the temporary restraining order after the Justice Department sued, seeking to prevent officials from releasing documents about where the FBI has placed hidden surveillance cameras on utility poles. The city had already released some documents, and the Justice Department said it filed the lawsuit to prevent further disclosures.
The city said it had planned to release the information pursuant to public records requests by news reporters and a privacy activist. The state Public Records Act typically exempts “specific intelligence information” from disclosure if its release would compromise effective law enforcement.
Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said she had no information about why city lawyers deemed the documents public, but that the city would abide by the federal court’s decision on whether they should be released. She knew of six cameras at issue, Mills said.
The Justice Department said that if the locations of the cameras are made public, the information could tip off investigation subjects that they are being monitored. The FBI had provided information about its use of the cameras to the city’s public utility, Seattle City Light, since 2013 under a promise of confidentiality, but only to prevent the cameras from being removed or destroyed by utility workers, the Justice Department said.
The FBI has ceased sharing that information with the utility because of possibility the city will make the information public, the Justice Department wrote.
“The FBI’s use of the pole camera technique is a powerful tool in FBI investigations of criminal violations and national security threats,” the Justice Department’s lawsuit said. “Disclosure of even minor details about them may cause jeopardy to important federal interests because, much like a jigsaw puzzle, each detail may aid adversaries in piecing together information about the capabilities, limitations, and circumstances of (the) equipment’s use, and would allow law enforcement subjects, or national security adversaries, to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the FBI’s use of this technology, in order to evade effective, lawful investigation by the FBI.”
Seattle is a liberal bastion with a long history of concerns about government surveillance. A city law passed in the 1970s barred police from collecting information about people based on their political views or exercise of constitutional rights.
In 2013, after the Seattle Police Department prompted an outcry by acquiring two drones, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring any city department intending to acquire surveillance equipment to get council approval first. The police department returned its two drones to the company that sold them.
But even that law has an exception that allows agencies to temporarily acquire or use surveillance equipment for a criminal investigation supported by reasonable suspicion, with a search warrant or under emergency circumstances.
Phil Mocek, a privacy activist who filed records requests for information about the pole cameras, said he was concerned that Seattle City Light may have attempted to sidestep that law. Emails he received earlier suggested that Seattle police and other local and federal agencies were aware that City Light was cooperating with federal agencies, he said.
“It appears a security manager at Seattle City Light has been running a rogue surveillance camera scheme, allowing federal agencies to install surveillance cameras and personally maintaining an inventory of those cameras,” Mocek said. “If that’s what’s happening, the public should know about it.”
A spokesman for City Light directed questions to the City Attorney’s Office.
In issuing the restraining order Monday, the judge said the Justice Department had shown a strong likelihood of winning its case. The release of the documents appeared to be prohibited by the state’s Public Records Act, the FBI’s confidentiality agreement with the city and federal law enforcement privileges.
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