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Judge orders FBI to turn over terrorism task force documents

A federal judge has ordered the Boston office of the FBI to disclose information about its Joint Terrorism Task Force in Massachusetts, including the number of agents assigned to the task force, the resources it uses, and the number of open cases it had as of 2014.

The order was in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which first requested the information nearly three years ago in a public records request under the Freedom of Information Act.

US District Judge Allison D. Burroughs rejected the FBI’s argument that the documents are exempt from public records laws because they would disclose law enforcement techniques and procedures.

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The FBI had argued that the information would “reveal the resources provided to operate the Massachusetts JTTF. . . . Armed with this information, criminals would have an idea as to where the FBI is focusing its limited resources.”

Burroughs said in a 17-page decision Wednesday that the disclosure of documents related to staffing and budgeting as of 2014 would not harm the agency.

“The historic, generic staffing and budget information, such as the number of parking spots allocated to the Massachusetts JTTF, or the maximum overtime pay, does not disclose how the Massachusetts JTTF actually goes about investigating crimes,” the judge said.

The judge also ordered the FBI to disclose the number of cases the task force had as of 2014, but she would not force the agency to disclose the classification of those cases, which would reveal how the FBI prioritizes investigations. She agreed that the classification of cases would indicate how the FBI prioritizes its investigations.

The ACLU welcomed the decision Wednesday.

“While the authority and power of Joint Terrorism Task Forces have exploded in recent years, the FBI has refused to provide even basic information about how these task forces operate,” Jessie Rossman, an ACLU staff attorney, said in a statement. “The ACLU brought this lawsuit to remove the shroud of secrecy.”

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Burroughs also ordered the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts – which had been named as a second defendant — to comply with the same order. Initially, the US attorney’s office refused to respond to the ACLU request for records, and later the office said that it would not search for the requested records because any documents it had would be the same as documents held by the FBI. Burroughs ordered the organization to comply with the ACLU request and search for any related records.

The US attorney’s office, which represented the FBI in the lawsuit, would not comment Wednesday.

The ACLU filed the public records request and lawsuit when the task force in Massachusetts was under scrutiny its handling of terrorism investigations, including the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. The task force had been alerted that one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was developing extremist beliefs, but failed to identify him as a threat.

The task force was also criticized for its secrecy following the shooting of Ibrahim Todashev, a friend of the Tsarnaev brothers, by an FBI agent. Todashev was killed in his Florida apartment in May 2013 after he allegedly attacked an agent who was questioning him.

The ACLU lawsuit also requested access to FBI documents related to the Todashev shooting. The judge has not yet ruled on that request.

The FBI produced 1,849 pages in response to the ACLU’s initial request, but 162 pages were partly redacted, and 784 were fully redacted. Burroughs said the FBI could withhold some information, based on exemptions to public records laws, because the information related to investigations and law enforcement procedures. But she ordered the organization to release general records related to the makeup of the task force.

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“The court finds that the FBI has not satisfied its burden of demonstrating that [the exemption rule] applies to these staffing and budget materials,” the judge said.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.