Court Curbs CIA Use of a FOIA Exemption

09.23.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Central Intelligence Agency tried to make “inappropriate” use of an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act to withhold information that was not subject to the exemption, a federal court ruled last month.

In a significant interpretation of the Central Intelligence Agency Act, Judge Beryl A. Howell narrowed the permissible scope of records that CIA may withhold under Section 403g of the Act.  That section allows CIA to exempt from release information concerning “the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by” the Agency.

But in a 163 page opinion in response to a lawsuit brought by the non-profit National Security Counselors, Judge Howell ruled on August 15 that CIA was interpreting this provision in a manner that was “inappropriately broad” (discussed at pp. 99-122).

Instead of just withholding information about CIA organization and personnel, she concluded, the Agency was also wrongly attempting to withhold “information that relates to” CIA organization and personnel– which is almost everything the Agency does.

“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,” Judge 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.”

If that seems like a common-sense conclusion, it is also a rare judicial setback for the CIA, and a reversal of the more familiar expansion of national security secrecy authority.

“This really is something pretty remarkable,” said Harry Hammitt of Access Reports, which monitors FOIA policy. “Judge Howell has narrowed the interpretation of the statute dramatically.”