This FBI agent had a boneheaded plan to copyright a secret interrogation manual

December 20, 2013

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Nick Baumann at Mother Jones has a pretty incredible story up right now -- as in you will be incredulous that an FBI agent actually thought this was a good idea. The author of a sensitive FBI interrogation manual submitted the document for copyright protection -- in the process, making it available to anyone with a card for the Library of Congress to read.

This is bizarre on a number of levels, but two aspects of the story are particularly mind-boggling. First is that the American Civil Liberties Union fought a legal battle with the FBI over access to documents just like this. In fact, the FBI relented and provided a version of this same manual to the ACLU last year. But the copy they released to the ACLU was heavily redacted -- unlike the 70-plus page version of the manual Baumann reviewed at the Library of Congress.

And second, the manual almost certainly shouldn't even qualify for a copyright because it is a government work. Anything "prepared by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of that person's official duties" is not subject to copyright in the United States. And yet, according to Baumann, the author of the manual deposited a version of the interrogation manual dated 2008 with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2010.

A comparison between that version catalogued by the Library of Congress and the redacted one the ACLU obtained reveals a few interesting details. For instance, the full version includes a sentence that says the manual is intended for the FBI's "clean" teams -- the investigators charged with collecting information for use in federal prosecutions. "That raises the question of whether teams collecting information that's not for use in federal courts would have to follow the manual's (already permissive) guidelines at all," says Baumann.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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