Trump, Nunes Accidentally Undo DOJ's Efforts To Keep Surveillance Docs Under Wraps
from the helluva-an-effort-there,-Trumpy dept
The government’s antipathy towards FOIA requesters is well-documented. Our last president declared his White House to be the Openest Place on Earth. This was followed by a clampdown on FOIA responses, huge increases in withheld documents, and a war on whistleblowers. The Trump Administration has made no such promises. Good thing, too, as the uncontrollable mouth running the country would make these promises impossible to keep. We’re living in a halcyon era of unprecedented, if inadvertent, government transparency. Whatever multitudinous leakers won’t provide, the president will hand over himself via Twitter or televised interviews.
Late last year, Trump handed plaintiffs in two FOIA lawsuits a gift when he undercut an FBI Glomar response (“neither confirm nor deny”) by confirming FBI investigations (and FISA court involvement) in domestic surveillance. Trump has done it again, thanks to approving the release of the Nunes memo. Again, FOIA requesters seeking information about FBI domestic surveillance have been handed a gift by the Commander in Chief, as Politico reports.
During a hearing on a bid by BuzzFeed to get more information about how a so-called dossier compiled by a former British spy was handled, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta grew frustrated with a Justice Department lawyer who argued that Trump’s declassification order did not alter the contours of the legal dispute.
Mehta said the government would normally be entitled to deference in asserting the need to keep its investigative work under wraps, but perhaps no longer with respect to the dossier.
“This isn’t the ordinary case,” Mehta told a Justice Department lawyer, Anjali Motgi. “I don’t know of any time the president has declassified the fact of a counterintelligence investigation. That’s going to be a hard sell given what the president has done. … This is a new frontier and it has an impact.”
The DOJ tried to argue that Trump’s declassification of the memo wasn’t an endorsement of its contents. The judge found this assertion literally incredible, saying she found it impossible to believe the DOJ and the White House disagreed about the factual basis of the released memo. If the DOJ can’t find a way to push this argument past the judge, Buzzfeed will likely gain access to documents it might need to defend itself from a libel lawsuit brought by someone mentioned in the Steele dossier. If nothing else, the declassification of the memo shows there’s substantial public interest in the contents of the dossier, which would buttress Buzzfeed’s claims that publishing it (without verifying the contents first) was “fair reporting” on government activities.
The DOJ, however, continues to insist the sought documents, even if released, change nothing for Buzzfeed. But to make this argument it has to sell its first argument — that the facts disclosed by the Nunes memo are not actually facts. The DOJ will get to make this argument in person, behind closed doors with the judge, where it will argue that releasing documents to Buzzfeed would harm its ongoing investigation.
On top of this turn of events, the Nunes memo’s release has also forced the DOJ to change its opacity stance in other FOIA lawsuits.
In one of those FOIA cases on Wednesday, government lawyers notified the court that the president’s declassification actions forced them to withdraw a refuse-to-confirm-or-deny response issued on requests that USA Today reporter Brad Heath and the pro-transparency James Madison Project made for surveillance warrants on Trump associates.
The DOJ may end up having to release documents it doesn’t want to release, thanks to the president and legislators aligned with Nunes. All it can do right now is buy time. And it will be an indefinite amount of time, apparently.
“Given recent events, and the possibility of additional declassifications by the president,” the lawyers wrote, “the government is unable at this time to propose a timetable to conduct this review.”
The Forever War on Transparency continues, but it’s being frustrated by self-serving acts of openness by the White House. I guess we’re the beneficiaries of accidental largesse, although it may be outweighed by other damaging White House acts and policies. However, someone writing about issues like these should never wish to live in uninteresting times, so the remainder of the Trump presidency should provide plenty of transparency yin/yang moments like these, where the government’s natural affinity for opacity is undone by the Commander in Chief’s proclivity for outing company secrets whenever it seems it might serve his singular narrative.