Agency mum on cameras

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

U.S. Forest Service officials are refusing to provide documents related to the use of surveillance cameras in the Francis Marion National Forest.

In a letter to Post and Courier Watchdog, Steven F. Ruppert, the Forest Service's top law enforcement agent in the Southeast, declined to give any details or documentation about the agency's surveillance cameras.

Ruppert wrote that under the Freedom of Information Act, the Forest Service can decline to provide information related "to agency internal personnel rules and practices" and information that "...would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions ..."

Watchdog appealed the denial, citing how other law enforcement agencies provide detailed cost breakdowns about their equipment.

The denial also comes in the wake of President Barack 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.

The surveillance camera issue came to light in February after Herman Jacob took his daughter and her friend camping off a section of the Palmetto Trail on U.S. Highway 52 north of Moncks Corner. While poking around for firewood, Jacob came across the video camera. It had no markings identifying its owner, but Jacob began calling local law enforcement agencies to find out if it was theirs.

Jacob said a Forest Service agent later called him and demanded he turn over the camera, which he did. Jacob said he was unsettled by the experience, and wondered why the Forest Service placed the camera in a primitive campground that he described as merely an open space in the woods.

Forest Service officials said the camera was part of a law enforcement investigation, and that the agency has used surveillance cameras for years to safeguard the public and protect the forest. Heather Frebe, public affairs officer with the Forest Service in Atlanta, said images of people who are not targets of an investigation aren't kept by the Forest Service, but she and other officials declined to discuss details about the agency's surveillance equipment, and whether the use of the cameras had resulted in any criminal prosecutions.

In his letter denying Watchdog's request for information about the usage and costs of the cameras, Ruppert said, "We have determined that the release of any records related to the use of surveillance devices would jeopardize future criminal investigations. The release of this information could undoubtedly be utilized to defeat law enforcement's use of electronic surveillance and significantly reduce or even nullify the effectiveness of this investigative technique."