by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
cia, foia, journalism, leaks

Courts Says CIA Can Dump Classified Info To Members Of The Public And Still Deny They've Been Publicly Released

from the NATSEC-math dept

Journalist Adam Johnson's FOIA lawsuit against the CIA has been brought to a halt. Johnson sued the CIA for refusing to release classified documents it had previously voluntarily "leaked" to selected journalists. The CIA argued the documents were still classified and not subject to FOIA requests. Johnson argued the CIA had already released the documents to the public when it decided to release this classified info to journalists.

Back in February, it appeared the court was on Johnson's side. Responding to the government's motion to dismiss, the court pointed out the CIA couldn't waive FOIA exemptions when dumping docs to journalists and then seek to use them when other journalists asked for the same info.

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. The fact that the reporters might not have printed what was disclosed to them has no logical or legal impact on the waiver analysis, because the only fact relevant to waiver analysis is: Did the CIA do something that worked a waiver of a right it otherwise had? The answer: CIA voluntarily disclosed what it had no obligation to disclose (and, indeed, had a statutory obligation not to disclose).

After another round of submissions by the plaintiff and the government, the judge has reached a final decision [PDF]. What once looked like a win for the FOIA requester has been turned into judicial support for selective disclosure. The CIA can waive and reinstate FOIA exemptions as often as it wants, so long as it only dumps documents to "trustworthy" journalists who won't make the waiver permanent by publishing them in full. (h/t Chris Geidner)

I fail to see why the fact that the information exists in electronic form on some private organization's server, which server can theoretically be hacked by an unauthorized user, should be treated any differently. If the only way that information can be seen by the general public is by stealing it from an authorized recipient, logic dictates that the information is not available to the general public- it is not "in the public domain." Plaintiff and Amici make a good deal out of the fact that the newspapers' servers are not secure servers, but I do not believe that the security level of a sending or receiving server makes the slightest difference to the analysis.

So Plaintiff fails because he is unable to demonstrate that the information he seeks resides today in the public domain; assuming, for purposes of argument, that the CIA' s decision to email the information to the reporters placed it there.

There is another reason why one cannot conclude that these particular emails are in the public domain. Even if there were a copy of the emails in the files of Mr. Shane or Mr. Ignatius or Ms. Gorman, or even if the reporter-recipients could still readily call up the full text on their computers, there is no evidence in the record that any member of the public could walk into the offices of the Times or the WaPo or the WSJ and demand to see a copy. For that matter, there is no evidence that anyone could obtain the information via service of a subpoena on the reporter-recipients. This court would be shocked if the three eminent news organizations whose employees received these emails did not fight tooth and nail against any effort to make them public; and as I understand matters, the law is on their side. If that were not so, Johnson would not be asking the CIA to disclose the redacted information; he would be suing the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The court notes the judicial system has bent over backwards to insulate national security agencies from FOIA requesters and these agencies' own careless handling of classified material. Agencies that regularly participate in selective leaking can still keep leaked documents out of FOIA requesters' hands so long as the leak recipients haven't published the documents in full. In this case, Johnson had redacted copies of the emails sent to journalists and was seeking to have the redactions stripped away. He had already cleared the high hurdle of knowing exactly what documents had been leaked to journalists. But despite clearing a nearly impossible hurdle, the court, while sympathetic, notes judicial precedent allows the CIA to have it both ways: release info to members of the public while claiming the information was never released publicly.

When grappling with the possibility of waiver via selective and limited disclosure of classified information, courts clearly outlined a way for Government officials dealing with national security and foreign affairs material to have their cake and eat it, too. They could make disclosures to third parties when the Director deemed it necessary to protect intelligence sources and methods, and they could do so without waiving their right to invoke relevant FOIA exemptions, as long as they did so in a way that created no permanent record outside the confines of the agency of exactly what was disclosed (exactly meaning, literally, "in haec verba "). In that way, the courts could never be entirely sure that whatever "public" record did exist (the notes taken by the people who were briefly shown the records at issue in Muslim Advocates, for example) was the "specific information" that had been disclosed previously. This bit of sophistry allowed the courts deny FOIA requests on the basis discussed in Wilson v. CIA, 5 86 F .3d 171, 186 (2d Cir. 2009).

It all comes down to one thing: the journalists who received the CIA's leaks never published the documents in full. Because of this -- despite there being copies of unredacted classified info residing on certain newsroom servers -- the CIA can claim this was not a public release and keep its redactions in place. The court's refusal to hold the government to a higher standard when it invokes national security claims has resulted in this illogical conclusion: what's been made public is not public info if certain caveats apply. To celebrate this ridiculous victory for government opacity, the journalists who received these documents should publish them in full. As the court notes, they'd be well within their legal rights to do so. But that would mean they wouldn't be trusted with selective leaks in the future, so it's unlikely these members of the public will undo the damage done by 40 years of NATSEC jurisprudence.

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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    time to bomb the fucking cunts, 22 May 2018 @ 4:55am

    bomb the fucking cunts

    bomb the fucking cunts cunts cunts

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2018 @ 5:56am

    We have a vast American court system to decide legal issues large and small -- is there some fundamental objection to how our courts operate (?) -- if so, what is it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2018 @ 6:24am

    Public Release

    If the CIA had wanted only certain parts of the documents to go public, they could have given only those parts to the journalists. So, it seems to me, that by releasing the whole document then the whole document becomes public.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2018 @ 8:14am

      Re: Public Release

      Yep. Seems to me the clear answer is for journalists to brave up and refuse to look at anything that's considered "classified" that they cannot publish. All it would take is an agreement form that the CIA official would be required to sign in advance saying the information could be released. Official refuses to sign, journalist refuses to listen or read leaked info. Journalists won't do that, though.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 22 May 2018 @ 6:35am

    Well we know their leadership has no problem lying to Congress, so lying to the public is no big deal.

    We pretend we have these laws & rights that they are supposed to respect & uphold but its become easier and easier to create holes you can drive a truck through in them.

    We should all just smile & nod, pretending that there is any sort of oversight of these things & that the law only applies when they want to hide what they are doing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Robert Beckman, 22 May 2018 @ 1:15pm


      We pretend that the bill of rights protects us, and they pretend to follow the law.

      I guess Russia really is taking over.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Peter (profile), 22 May 2018 @ 6:49am

    What happened to the third-party-doctrine?

    When the government wants data from its citizens, it argues that "releasing" data to any third party effectively puts data such location, purchase histories, internet browsing histories into the public domain, for anybody to access. Even if the data have only been "released" to (or generated on) a secure server at a service provider.

    Wouldn't the same apply to confidential information?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2018 @ 7:14am

    Compare to Limited Publication in Copyright

    The courts created the doctrine of “limited publication” to distinguish certain distributions
    from a “general publication” and to avoid the divestive consequences of publication without
    notice when it was clear the author (or copyright proprietor) restricted both the purpose and
    the recipients of the distribution. Generally, a limited publication is the distribution of copies of
    a work to a definitely selected group with a limited purpose and without the right of diffusion,
    reproduction, distribution, or sale. A limited publication is not considered a distribution to the
    public and, therefore, is not publication.

    Before the adoption of the Copyright Act of 1976 two kinds of publication existed; general publication and limited publication.

    A work that was made available to the public at large without a specific audience was called a general publication.

    A work that communicated the contents to a definitely selected group and for a limited particular purpose without the right of diffusion, reproduction, distribution or sale was called limited publication.

    The distinction between limited and general publication was not mentioned in either the 1909 Act or the 1976 Act. 114 However, the 1976 Act codifies the same basic principle by defining publication as a “distribution . . . to the public.” Through this definition, Congress created a space for private sharing that would not have the same legal significance as a “publication.”116 Therefore, the definition appears to track the same general distinction between limited and general publications.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2018 @ 1:19pm

      Re: Compare to Limited Publication in Copyright

      Everything you wrote is true, but it's about intellectual property rights law (copyright, specifically). It was not intended for control of dissemination of classified information, which is covered under other laws and regulations.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2018 @ 11:18am

    People want the government to run their lives. Take more and more power. The Courts always side with the Government and Police while lying through their teeth. Our rights are going away. We're just live to give the government ever-growing amounts of money and more and more control of our lives.

    It's like dropping a Lobster in a pot of Cold water versus Hot water. We're the lobster. People would be up in arms and revolting if Government just did things quickly. Start out cold and warm up more and more, as you don't notice until it's way too late.

    We already should of long ago be revolting for all the taxes we pay. It never ends. A little here, a little there, and there and there, there, there. Auto taken out of your paycheck so you don't notice that big chunk. Property taxes you don't notice as your paying that as part of your mortgage, and on and on. Now here comes the Head Tax. So you get taxed just having a job. Just another new way to find a way to screw companies and people over even more. Amazingly, people think this is a good thing. SUCKERS. We're losing more and more of our rights. Maybe because they like to throw out Terrorism, or protecting the Children.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Techdirt Pro-Mo Dept, 22 May 2018 @ 2:52pm

    CIA: Collect It All

    Last chance! Campaign ends at midnight! Get your copy of the CIA's declassified training game by backing CIA: Collect It All on Kickstarter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 May 2018 @ 12:47am

    "Russia, if you’re listening [...]"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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