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FOIA Update: FOIA Focus: Thomas H. Bresson

FOIA Update
Vol. V, No. 2

FOIA Focus: Thomas H. Bresson

The Federal Bureau of Investigation annually receives more than 15,000 FOIA and Privacy Act requests for records maintained in its vast criminal and intelligence records systems. There is considerable public interest in virtually every major FBI investigation (e.g., the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Rosenberg espionage conspiracy, ABSCAM), as well as a steady stream of first-party requesters who seek access to their FBI files.

The FBI's Deputy Assistant Director for Records Management holds direct oversight responsibility for the FBI's administration of the FOIA and the Privacy Act. This official ensures that the FBI's efforts in this area comply as fully as possible with the spirit and intent of these two disclosure statutes. It is a job that requires an enormous depth of experience with law enforcement access issues, as well as great management skill.

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"The FBI allocates 12-13 million dollars per year to the discharge of its responsibilities under the FOIA and the Privacy Act," says Thomas H. Bresson, Deputy Assistant Director of the Records Management Division.

"Our FOI/PA Section, headed up by Jim Hall, employs more than 200 people devoted exclusively to disclosure matters. This figure does not even include the Record Section employees who identify and locate the files that are the subject of a FOIA/PA request, nor the many field office personnel who work on such matters. The FBI's commitment totals approximately 400 work years annually."

At the FBI's Headquarters in Washington, D.C., FOIA and Privacy Act processing operations are now highly structured. There are three disclosure units which process access requests. Each unit consists of four teams, which average twelve document analysts per team, who make the initial determinations on what may be released. "Careful review is necessary to ensure the most liberal access afforded by both statutes without inadvertently releasing information that it is our duty to protect," explains Bresson.

Law-trained Special Agents supervise the work of team captains and members. These Special Agents personally follow through on matters appealed by a requester to the Department of Justice's Office of Information and Privacy and are additionally involved in any subsequent litigation.

Other FOI/PA Section subdivisions include the Initial Processing Unit, which logs all incoming requests on computers and handles initial responses; the Field Coordinators, who coordinate disclosure activities between FBI Headquarters and the many FBI field offices; and the Training and Research Unit, which trains a newly hired personnel and keeps more experienced personnel abreast of significant new court decisions.

The large and well organized FOI/PA Section is a relatively recent development at the FBI. Indeed, prior to late 1974, it did not even exist.

The version of the FOIA that was initially enacted by Congress in 1966 categorically exempted from disclosure all files that were compiled for law enforcement purposes. "It had virtually no impact on FBI records," says Bresson. In the fall of 1974, however, Congress amended the FOIA and eliminated this blanket exemption, requiring the production of law enforcement records unless an agency can demonstrate that the requested records fall within certain specified exemptions.

After the 1974 FOIA Amendments and the Privacy Act of 1974 took effect, the number of access requests received by the FBI suddenly skyrocketed from 400 per year (1974) to more than 13,000 (1975). Almost overnight, an enormous backlog was born. "Requests came from historical researchers, newsmen, people who had been involved in various organizations active on both the right and the left side of 1930-1974 issues, the prison populace, and the idly curious as well," Bresson recalls.

This unpecedented volume of access requests had a formidable impact on the FBI. Law-trained agents were brought to FBI Headquarters to develop legal policies governing the production of records from the FBI's criminal and intelligence record systems, and to plan and implement the diversion of resources required to meet such new disclosure demands.

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In late 1974, on "loan" from the FBI's Washington, D.C., Field Office, Tom Bresson was brought to the FBI's Legal Counsel Division to handle these newly emerging FOIA and Privacy Act issues. Joining a staff of only six -- three law-trained agents and three document analysts -- he became engaged in developing policy guidelines for disclosure of law enforcement records, training employees to make initial determinations according to disclosure statutes, and structuring an organization capable of managing the access requests that quickly flooded in.

Bresson's contributions proved most valuable to this nascent organization as it struggled to keep pace with incoming requests. In 1976, he became Chief of the FOI/PA Disclosure Section in the Records Management Division.

By 1976, however, the FBI was faced with one overwhelming problem: the monumental backlog of access requests which had been rapidly accumulating. Even with considerable increases in the numbers of FOI/PA personnel assigned to disclosure matters, the problem soon became unmanageable.

However, following testimony before a congressional subcommittee, the FBI promised to devote the manpower and resources necessary to overcome this backlog of FOIA and Privacy Act requests. The imaginative approach to solving this dilemma, established and implemented under Bresson's direction, was called "Project Onslaught."

Under "Project Onslaught," more than 300 law-trained Special Agents from the FBI's various field offices were deployed to Washington, D.C., from May through September of 1977, to work on reducing this backlog of unanswered requests. The project was a complete success. While the backlog was not completely eradicated, from that point onward it was manageable.

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In the early days of FOIA implementation, Tom Bresson frequently lectured to students at various training programs sponsored by the Department of Justice. As an acknowledged expert on the interaction of law enforcement records and the media, he now speaks at seminars such as those conducted by the Society of Professional Journalists, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the American Society for Industrial Security. He has even appeared on a BBC talk show taped for audiences in England discussing American information law statutes.

Like other veteran FOIA experts at many federal agencies, Bresson sort of "fell into" the area and stayed with it during a time of great expansion. Before long, he became virtually indispensable to the FBI's FOIA operations and rose through the ranks accordingly.

Now, looking back on his nearly ten years of FOIA experiences, Bresson says: "I never expected to stay in this one area for so long, but I'm pleased to have been able to make such a long-term contribution."

In the law enforcement information disclosure area, certainly no one has made a greater one.

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Updated August 13, 2014