Records show FBI practice of hiding evidence in secret databases
SALT LAKE CITY — A federal court hearing regarding allegedly hidden Oklahoma City bombing videotapes raised questions about the FBI evidence filing system that a Salt Lake attorney says shows a pattern of deception.
"They hide things. That's for sure," said Jesse Trentadue.
Court documents from various cases, an Associated Press story and a recent court order in California suggest the FBI has routinely concealed evidence from defense attorneys and others seeking records through the Freedom of Information Act.
Trentadue believes the agency has withheld from him surveillance footage from the Alfred P. Murrah Building and police dashcam video of Timothy McVeigh on the day of the deadly explosion.
The Salt Lake attorney began looking into the 1995 bombing case after his brother died in a federal detention center in Oklahoma. He believes federal agents mistook Kenneth Trentadue for a suspect and beat him to death during an August 1995 interrogation. He claims the video will reveal a second bombing suspect who resembles but is not his brother.
In a U.S. District Court hearing this week, Trentadue recited a recent history of FBI information storage systems bearing names such as "june files," "zero files, "I-drive" and now "S-drive."
The S-drive apparently is where the FBI currently stores documents. Kathryn Wyer, a Department of Justice attorney representing the FBI in the Trentadue case, acknowledged its existence during the hearing. But she said there's nothing nefarious about it.
"The S in S-drive stands for shared drive, not secret drive," she said.
In his ruling after the hearing, Judge Clark Waddoups ordered the FBI to further explain the S-drive and prove it searched that database in the Trentadue matter.
The FBI has already turned over 30 videotapes and 200 documents to Trentadue, and Wyer said there is nothing more in the files. She said the FBI does not have to prove whether other tapes exist or not, but show it conducted a reasonable search of databases where the records are likely to be.
Spokespersons for FBI in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., and the Department of Justice said they could not comment on the FBI's evidence storage systems, citing the ongoing litigation.
How the FBI uses those systems illustrates a practice of deception that is well documented in the public record, Trentadue said.
Zero files, for example, were reports containing information the agency did not want disclosed to defense counsel and which were kept separate from specific case files, according to a former FBI agent's affidavit in the Terry Lynn Nichols criminal case. The file name arose from the zero placed at the end of a report's assigned number to set it apart from other documents.
In 2004, the Associated Press revealed the existence of the "I-drive," a temporary storage device created for FBI field office computer networks. Starting in 1996, agents used the I-drive to upload investigative documents for their supervisors to decide whether to place in the agency's official case files.
According to the story, the FBI did not routinely search the I-drive to see whether requested materials should be sent to defense lawyers, Congress or special investigative bodies such as the 9/11 inquiry.
The FBI acknowledged that some documents the AP unearthed for a 2004 story on the Oklahoma City bombing were inexplicably never given to its own investigators or lawyers for McVeigh, who was executed for the crime. And in 2001, the agency found 4,000 relevant documents that also were never turned over, which delayed McVeigh's execution for a month, according to AP.
Just last month, a federal judge in the Central District of California called the FBI and its records manager David M. Hardy on the carpet for submitting false declarations in an attempt to conceal documents from plaintiffs in a FOIA case. Hardy also has been involved with Trentadue's FOIA request.
In that case, the FBI asserted authority to provide false information to the court.
"The government argues that there are times when the interests of national security require the government to mislead the court. The court strongly disagrees," wrote Judge Cormac J. Carney. "The government’s duty of honesty to the court can never be excused, no matter what the circumstance."
Wyer said that case isn't relevant in Trentadue because it doesn't involve national security.
All of those factors feed Trentadue's suspicion that FBI is concealing videotapes in his case. He believes the video will somehow help unravel what happened to his brother.
Kenneth Trentadue was a convicted bank robber who was taken to the federal transfer center in Oklahoma City after violating probation in San Diego in June 1995. His official cause of death was listed as suicide. But when his body was returned to the Trentadue family, it was covered with blood and bruises that Jesse Trentadue contends could have only come from a beating.
In a letter to Trentadue, the FBI said its search of the I-drive in the Oklahoma City field office yielded no records concerning him or his brother.
Still, Trentadue raised enough questions in court about how the FBI handles information requests that Waddoups ordered the agency to provide answers.
In addition to explaining the S-drive, the judge wants the FBI to prove it searched the I-drive. He wants Hardy and other FBI employees to indicate if they made truthful statements in the Trentadue case. He also wants the agency to address whether it searched evidence control centers in Oklahoma City and FBI headquarters and the FBI crime lab.
Finally, Waddoups ordered the FBI to explain how burdensome it would be to check the Oklahoma City bombing case file for entries in the two weeks after the explosion.
Trentadue said now that he knows about the different storage drives, his next FOIA request will specify searches of the A-drive, B-drive, C-drive, etc.
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