An AP story, which the Sydney Morning Herald gave the headline Civil rights photographer was FBI spy, does a rewrite of a story by a newspaper called the Commercial Appeal.
The newspaper did not have access to Withers' informant file because it is sealed. The Justice Department twice denied The Commercial Appeal's requests for that file and won't acknowledge it exists, the newspaper reported.
Instead, the government released 369 pages related to a 1970s public corruption probe that targeted Withers, who pleaded guilty in 1979 to extorting kickbacks from a nightclub owner while he was a Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission agent. Those pages included redacted references to informants, but in one instance the FBI failed to hide a single reference to Withers' informant number, ME 338-R.
As with all AP rewrites, it pays to read the original story. Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement; He provided agency with insider's view of volatile period reads the September 12 story with Marc Perrusquia's byline.
Censors overlooked a single reference to Withers' informant number. That number, in turn, unlocked the secret of the photographer's 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released under FOIA 30 years ago. Those reports -- more than 7,000 pages comprising the FBI's files on the 1968 sanitation strike and a 1968-70 probe of the Invaders -- at times pinpoint specific actions by Withers and in other instances show he was one of several informants contributing details.
The link in the Appeal's story goes back to the original document, which the Appeal published. Pages from FOIA reveal Withers as informant shows a three page transmission on form FD-36 (Rev 7-27-76)
The full report is on the Commercial Appeal as Withers Exposed. It uses the Document Cloud system to highlight and sift through records to reconstruct information from linked files released in previous FBI FOIAs.