Judge Orders CIA to Stop Abusing Freedom of Information Act Exemption

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Judge Beryl Howell

Much to the delight of government watchdogs and the media, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was ordered recently by a federal judge to stop avoiding Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by claiming illegal exemptions to federal law.


In a case brought by the non-profit National Security Counselors, Judge Beryl A. Howell said the CIA had made “inappropriate” use of an exemption provided under the Central Intelligence Agency Act (pdf) to withhold information that was not subject to the exemption.


The ruling (pdf) focused on Section 403g of the act that allows the CIA to exempt from release information concerning “the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by” the agency.


Howell ruled that CIA was interpreting this provision in a manner that was “inappropriately broad” by wrongly attempting to withhold virtually any “information that relates to” the CIA organization and personnel.


“The Court holds that the CIA may not invoke [50 USC] 403g to withhold information merely because that information may be used by CIA personnel to carry out their responsibilities or functions,” Howell wrote. “The CIA Act does not protect all information about CIA functions generally….The CIA may only invoke 50 USC 403g to withhold information under the FOIA if it would reveal the specific categories of personnel-related information enumerated in the statute.”


Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News said the ruling represented “a rare judicial setback for the CIA, and a reversal of the more familiar expansion of national security secrecy authority.”


Harry Hammitt of Access Reports, which monitors FOIA policy, told Aftergood that the ruling “really is something pretty remarkable,” because “Judge Howell has narrowed the interpretation of the statute dramatically.”


Appointed to the D.C. District Court by President Barack Obama in 2010, Howell in 2011, ordered the Obama administration to release White House visitor logs. In June 2013, she ruled that the 64-year ban on protests in front of the U.S. Supreme Court was unconstitutional.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Court Curbs CIA Use of a FOIA Exemption (by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News)

Opinion: National Security Counselors v. Central Intelligence Agency (Judge Beryl A. Howell, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia) (pdf)

National Security Increasingly Cited in Freedom of Information Act Denials; EPA Suspected of Selective Obstruction (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

CIA Releases Documents…20 Years After Requested (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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