(CN) - The FBI was right to withhold records about an alleged murder plot targeting the leaders of Occupy Houston, to protect its informants, a federal judge ruled.
Plaintiff Ryan Noah Shapiro is a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research includes "the policing of dissent ... especially in the name of national security" and "examining FBI and other intelligence agency efforts to preserve domestic surveillance capabilities while simultaneously subverting the Freedom of Information Act," according to his MIT profile.
Shapiro sent the FBI three Freedom of Information Act requests in early 2013, asking for records about "a potential plan to gather intelligence against the leaders of [Occupy Wall Street-related protests in Houston] and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership [of the protests] via suppressed sniper rifles."
Shapiro told Courthouse News he learned of the alleged plot from FBI documents obtained by investigative reporter Jason Leopold.
The Houston group is an offshoot of a movement that started in New York City in 2011 and focused on the widening income gap between America's richest people and everyone else.
Shapiro said he wanted the records for his doctorate work and he intended to release urgent info about Occupy Houston to the public.
The FBI had refused to give Shapiro any documents until he filed an April 2013 federal complaint in Washington, D.C., after which the agency gave him 17 pages.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer found last year that the FBI had properly withheld some records, but took issue with its use of Exemption 7 under the FOIA, which protects from disclosure "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes."
Collyer dismissed the lawsuit this week after reviewing the documents in her chambers.
Shapiro challenged the FBI's withholding of the names of its murder plot sources, claiming there is no privacy expectation for people who could be called to testify as trial witnesses.
But Collyer found Monday that the FBI correctly invoked FOIA exemption 7(c), which shields law enforcement records from disclosure if they could constitute an invasion of personal privacy.
The judge also agreed with the FBI that exemption 7(d) applied to the case. It allows records to be withheld if they "could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source."
Citing a declaration from FBI agent David Hardy that said the confidential sources are "individuals who are members of organized violent groups," Collyer said the likelihood of retaliation justified keeping the sources' identities under wraps.
Shapiro vowed to keep fighting for the records.
"I'm of course disappointed in, and disagree with, the judge's ruling. I'm now conferring with my attorney to determine next steps," Shapiro said in an email.
He said he is concerned that the FBI collected dossiers on Occupy protestors while publicly denying it.
"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,'" Shapiro wrote.
"Yet, in the course of my FOIA lawsuit against the FBI for records about the sniper plot against Occupy Houston, the FBI contradicted its own position."
Shapiro said that with recently released FBI documents about Occupy Chicago, "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."