A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Seattle City Light from disclosing the location of FBI cameras and other surveillance equipment hidden on some of the city’s utility poles.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones said in a written order Monday that he reviewed classified material before issuing the order, finding that the bureau could be “irreparably injured” if the information is released. Turning over the information could damage national security or “harm important federal law enforcement operational interests as well as the personal privacy of innocent third parties.”
Federal prosecutors filed a complaint Monday in U.S. District Court asking that City Light be barred from turning over the information in response to a state public disclosure filed by Phil Mocek, a founding member of the Center for Open Policing, which has sued a number of public agencies over access to information.
Jones said the TRO would remain in effect until further order.
According to the complaint, filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI claims it has “already been injured by the city’s unauthorized” disclosure of the existence of the cameras to KIRO-TV in November in response to an public-disclosure request.
The city, after strenuous objections to the release of any information by the FBI, agreed to redact the location of the cameras. That’s the information that Mocek was seeking — and that the city intended to release — before Jones issued the temporary restraining order.
In its complaint, the FBI says the city’s decision to release any information has badly damaged the relationship with the bureau, and the FBI says it is no longer telling City Light when or where it might be installing surveillance equipment, which the complaint says is routinely disguised so it won’t be recognized by passers-by or the subject of the investigation. Every camera, the government said, is tied to a specific investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Winn said in court filings that the disclosure of the location of the cameras “can have a devastating impact on an investigation.”
“Armed with such knowledge, a subject would not only be able to evade further investigation by the FBI, but would also be able to employ countermeasures to impede further investigation,” Winn wrote.
The FBI is not the only federal law enforcement agency using city utility poles as a base for surveillance. The issue came to light last August when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acknowledged it has installed cameras as part of an investigation in the Central District.
Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for the Seattle City Attorneys Office, said Monday that “Obviously the city will abide by the court’s ruling.
“This issue has been percolating for several months,” she said. “We did our due diligence by notifying the federal government of the state public records request by Phil Mocek that sought the locations of these cameras.”
Kimberly said the City Attorney’s Office is consulting with City Light.
An email sent to Mocek seeking comment was not immediately returned.
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