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The FBI's rules

August 27, 2008

Re "Is the FBI investigating Delgadillo?," Opinion, Aug. 20

In his article criticizing the FBI's practice of "refusing to confirm or deny" the existence of pending investigations, Times columnist Tim Rutten fails to appreciate the logic behind this long-standing policy.

The policy exists not, as Rutten seems to suggest, to stonewall a free press or to keep information from the public, but to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations and/or to mitigate prejudice to subjects of investigation -- subjects that may or may not ultimately be charged with a crime.

Under the federal Privacy Act, the FBI may disclose information to the media or the general public only in furtherance of legitimate law enforcement or public safety functions -- for example, to assist in locating fugitives, to provide notifications of arrest, or to keep the public informed of matters of legitimate public interest when disclosure wouldn't constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Admittedly, the rise of the blogosphere and online media have blurred the once bright-line rules of journalism. That is no reason, however, for the criminal justice system to discard simple rules that make good sense. There will be the rare, compelling case in which it is truly in the public interest to make a disclosure of pending-case information, but the competitive tides of the media should not be the driver.

Salvador Hernandez

FBI Assistant Director

in Charge

Los Angeles Field Office

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