The Central Intelligence Agency can selectively disclose classified information to reporters while withholding that very same information from a requester under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal court ruled last month.
The ruling came in a FOIA lawsuit brought by reporter Adam Johnson who sought a copy of emails sent to reporters Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, and Scott Shane of the New York Times that the CIA said were classified and exempt from disclosure.
“The Director of Central Intelligence is free to disclose classified information about CIA sources and methods selectively, if he concludes that it is necessary to do so in order to protect those intelligence sources and methods, and no court can second guess his decision,” wrote Chief Judge Colleen J. McMahon of the Southern District of New York in a decision in favor of the CIA that was released last week with minor redactions.
The Freedom of Information Act is a tool that can change as it is used, whether for the better or the worse, especially since FOIA case law rests on precedent. That means that a FOIA lawsuit that is ill-advised or poorly argued or that simply fails for any reason can alter the legal landscape to the disadvantage of future requesters. In particular, as anticipated a few months ago, “a lawsuit that was intended to challenge the practice of selective disclosure could, if unsuccessful, end up ratifying and reinforcing it.” That is what has now happened.
The shift is starkly illustrated by comparing the statements of Judge McMahon early in the case, when she seemed to identify with the plaintiff’s perspective, and her own final ruling that coincided instead with the CIA’s position.
“There is absolutely no statutory provision that authorizes limited disclosure of otherwise classified information to anyone, including ‘trusted reporters,’ for any purpose, including the protection of CIA sources and methods that might otherwise be outed,” she had previously stated in a January 30 order.
“In the real world, disclosure to some who are unauthorized operates as a waiver of the right to keep information private as to anyone else,” which was exactly the plaintiff’s point.
“I suppose it is possible,” she added in a cautionary footnote, “that the Government does not consider members of the press to be part of ‘the public.’ I do.”
But this congenial (to the plaintiff) point of view would soon be abandoned by the court. By the end of the case, the mere act of disclosure to one or more members of the press would no longer be deemed equivalent to “public disclosure” for purposes of waiving an exemption from disclosure under FOIA.
Instead, Judge McMahon would come to accept, as the CIA argued in a February 14 brief, that “a limited disclosure of information to three journalists does not constitute a disclosure to the public. Where, as here, the record shows that the classified and statutorily protected information at issue has not entered the public domain, there is no waiver of FOIA’s exemptions.”
Plaintiff Johnson objected that “the Government cannot define ‘public’ to mean members of the public it is not disclosing information to.”
“The Government’s position that it may selectively disclose without waiver, if it has the best of intentions, knows no logical limits and would render the FOIA waiver doctrine a nullity,” he wrote. “The CIA’s motive in releasing the information is irrelevant under FOIA. Whether good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all, what matters is that an authorized disclosure took place. If the CIA does not wish to waive its secrecy prerogative, it cannot authorize a disclosure to a member of the public.”
In an amicus brief, several FOIA advocacy groups presented a subtle technical argument in support of the plaintiff. Under the circumstances, they concluded, the court had no choice but to order disclosure. “It does not matter… how much alleged damage the release of the information could cause.”
But these counterarguments proved unpersuasive to the court, and Judge McMahon ended up with a new conception of what constitutes the kind of prior “public disclosure” that would compel release of information under FOIA. Selective disclosure to individual reporters would not qualify.
“For something to be ‘public,’ it has to, in some sense, be accessible to members of the general public,” she now held in her final opinion.
“Selective disclosure of protectable information to an organ of the press… does not create a ‘truly public’ record of that information.” So CIA cannot be forced to disclose it to others. This was exactly the opposite of the view expressed by Judge McMahon earlier in the case.
The ruling was a defeat for the FOIA in the sense that it affirmed and strengthened a barrier to disclosure.
But it might also be considered a victory for the press, to the extent that it enables exchange of classified information with reporters off the record. Had the court compelled disclosure of the classified CIA emails to reporters Gorman, Ignatius and Shane, that would likely have reduced or eliminated the willingness of agencies to share classified information with reporters, as they occasionally do.
But the practice of selective disclosure has risks of its own, wrote plaintiff’s attorney Dan Novack last year. It “allow[s] the government to hypocritically release sensitive national security information when it suits its public relations interests without fear of being held to its own standard later.”