National Security Counselors (NSC), an Arlington, Virginia-based public interest group (and legal counsel for the National Whistleblowers Center on FOIA issues), has filed three lawsuits against the CIA about how the agency handles and interprets document requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  According to Kel McClanahan, Executive Director of NSC, the filed lawsuits are the culmination of a yearlong effort to shed light on how the CIA processes FOIA requests and correct some of the Agency’s most egregious systemic violations of the letter and spirit of FOIA.

According to the NSC complaints, the CIA’s violations include, but are not limited to, the following:

·      Considering all comments, remarks, or notes written by CIA FOIA analysts regarding their processing of FOIA requests as categorically exempt, regardless of the content;

·      Considering all training materials, guidelines, reference materials, etc. provided to CIA FOIA analysts as categorically exempt, regardless of the content;

·      Refusing to acknowledge the existence of any FOIA requests referred to it by other agencies;

·      Refusing to provide requesters with estimated dates of completion for their FOIA requests, as stipulated by law;

·      Refusing to provide specifics about information it withholds from requesters or its reasons for withholding the information, such that requesters cannot intelligently appeal any withholdings with any degree of particularity;

·      Utilizing significantly overbroad criteria to determine legitimate FOIA requests to be inadequate, and summarily cancelling them without first contacting requesters, as stipulated by CIA regulations; and

·      Refusing to recognize legal assignments of rights in FOIA requests from one requester to another

Many of these policies are not unique to the CIA, according to McClanahan, but the CIA is one of the “leaders” in this field. “If you look at an agency’s legal brief in any case where it is trying to justify withholding records, you’re more often than not going to see citations to cases involving the CIA,” McClanahan says. “That’s one of the reasons we’re suing the CIA, as opposed to other agencies. A victory here on any of these counts should propagate through the rest of the government, with the effect of not only shutting down these practices at the CIA, but at other agencies as well.” If McClanahan’s analysis is correct, this means that a large percentage of FOIA requesters will be affected by NSC’s litigation, and we wish them luck.

You can visit the National Security Counselors website for more information about the lawsuits, including copies of the complaints and other legal filings.


*Sabeen Khanmohamed (a NWC intern) contributed to this posting