Secrecy News

FOIA Exemption for CIA “Operational Files” at Issue

Last March, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency seeking a copy of “all pornographic material” collected during the May 2011 military operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

In opposition, CIA argued that “responsive records, if any, would be contained in operational files,” and that “the CIA Information Act exempts the CIA’s operational files from FOIA’s search and disclosure requirements.”

There is indeed an exemption from FOIA for CIA operational files, but the scope and the proper application of the exemption are in dispute. If the requested pornographic records do qualify for the “operational files” designation, as CIA holds, then they do not need to be assembled, reviewed or released in response to Judicial Watch’s request.

But whether they do so qualify is not a perfectly simple question, since the operational files exemption has various technical limitations and exceptions.

Judicial Watch said the bin Laden pornography falls within the “special activity” exception to the operational files exemption. “The ‘special activity’ exception applies to records concerning a specific covert action that has been publicly disclosed or acknowledged,” wrote attorney Michael Bekesha of Judicial Watch.

As evidence that the bin Laden raid was in fact a covert action that has been publicly disclosed, Judicial Watch cited a quotation from then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, who described it on the PBS Newshour, saying that “this was what’s called a ‘title 50’ operation, which is a covert operation, and it comes directly from the president of the United States who made the decision to conduct this operation in a covert way.”

Remarkably, however, CIA insisted that Panetta “did not acknowledge that the operation was conducted under covert action authorities.”

“The term ‘covert operation’ [used by Panetta] is not synonymous with a ‘covert action,’ nor is Mr. Panetta’s description of the raid as ‘covert’ an acknowledgement of a ‘covert action’,” said CIA’s Antoinette B. Shiner in a declaration last month.

Judicial Watch moved to strike that CIA declaration as improper, particularly since it was not based on personal knowledge of Panetta’s intent.

That particular issue, and the case as a whole, now await resolution by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the DC District Court.

In an aside, attorneys for CIA questioned the plaintiff’s motivation for filing the lawsuit. “It is hard to imagine how dissemination of pornographic materials allegedly seized during the Bin Laden raid could inform the public in any meaningful way about what the United States government is up to — the core, animating purpose of FOIA — much less advance Judicial Watch’s professed mission ‘to promote transparency, accountability, and integrity in government and fidelity to the rule of law’.”

But the Freedom of Information Act does not require that requesters be motivated by some constructive purpose. Under FOIA, any person may request any government record for any reason, or for no reason at all. The bar to entry and the costs of participation are practically non-existent.

For its part, Judicial Watch defended its approach. “We’re filling multiple roles here in a Washington where the traditional vehicles for government accountability have broken down,” said Tom Fitton, president of the organization, in a recent profile in the New York Times. (“Group’s Tactic on Hillary Clinton: Sue Her Again and Again” by Jonathan Mahler, October 12.)

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Last week, the Central Intelligence Agency released the conclusions of its 2015 “decennial review” of operational file designations, as required by the CIA Information Act of 1984. The exercise is supposed to refine and revalidate the use of the operational files category as an exemption from FOIA.

But although CIA went through the motions of requesting public comments on the matter last year, the Agency did not directly respond to any of those comments in its April 2016 report to Congress. For the most part, the results of the third decennial review track closely with those of the second decennial review in 2005. The new report does not explicitly reference Clandestine Service History Program Files, however, among a few other changes in wording. The significance of that is unclear.

The latest review did not identify any categories of records that were to be removed from the operational files category, as was done in report on the first decennial review in 1995.