Access to U.S. Forest Service surveillance info denied

This motion-activated camera was found in a primitive campsite in the Francis Marion National Forest.

A top U.S. Forest Service official has denied Post and Courier Watchdog's appeal for documents describing the use of surveillance cameras in the Francis Marion National Forest.

In a letter, Hank Kashdan, the Forest Service's second-in-command and associate chief, denied the bulk of the newspaper's request, enclosing only two pages from a Forest Service handbook about investigative procedures.

The surveillance camera issue came to light in February after a local man took his daughter and her friend camping in an isolated area off the Palmetto Trail north of Moncks Corner.

While poking around for firewood, the man came across the video camera, which had no markings that identified its owner. The man called local law enforcement agencies to find its owner, triggering a brusque phone call from a Forest Service agent who demanded that he turn it over. The man turned it over but felt the use of the camera violated his family's privacy.

While investigating the incident, Watchdog tried to find out how much money the Forest Service spends on cameras, for what purposes, the effectiveness of surveillance cameras in criminal prosecutions and information about how agency employees handle images.

In brief comments, Forest Service officials said that the camera was part of an unidentified law enforcement investigation, and that images of people who are not targets of an investigation aren't kept. Forest Service officials declined to say whether the use of the cameras resulted in any criminal prosecutions or provide the paper with any documentation describing the equipment's effectiveness.

The agency also failed to provide information about safeguards the agency takes to prevent the cameras' misuse, though the two pages from the handbook did discuss when video surveillance requires court intervention. The document said court orders are required "where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists," such as "private offices of employees, restricted access areas, and the interior of private homes." Forest Service officials and the courts have ruled that the public does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy on public lands, even in a remote campground.

The Forest Service's denials of Watchdog's requests for information comes in the wake of President Obama's directive to agency heads to be more forthcoming in their FOIA responses. "The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," the president's order said.