New York City Court Buys NYPD's Claims Of 'National Security,' Grants It Power To 'Glomar' FOIL Requests
from the don't-have-to-confirm-or-deny-jackshit,-citizen dept
A New York City court has given the NYPD one of the few things separating it from the "big boys" (CIA, FBI and NSA): the permission to issue "Glomar responses" (the infamous "we can neither confirm nor deny...") to FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests. Like the audacity of the department itself in pursuing this additional method of keeping the public separated from public documents, the decision is unprecedented.
The decision appears to be the first time that a court anywhere in the U.S. has upheld the use of such a tactic by a state agency. The Glomar response has historically been used only with regard to requests made to federal agencies that involve sensitive matters of national security.That a New York court would find in the home team's favor is perhaps inevitable. The NYPD, along with various officials, have long portrayed the safety of New York City as inextricably intertwined with the safety of the nation itself -- a view partially justified by the city's position as the epicenter of the 9/11 attacks.
But doing so allows a department with a proven track record of open hostility towards FOIL requests another way to abuse its position. On top of heavy redactions, an in-house classification system that has no apparent legal basis, and plain old stonewalling, the NYPD will now be able to simply claim it can't even acknowledge the existence of responsive documents. This shifts the balance too far in its favor.
At the federal level, use of Glomar responses is premised on the argument that there are certain matters of national security that would result in irrevocably harm if divulged to the general public. It has been criticized by open government groups, including the Reporters Committee, because it allows agencies to deny FOIA requests without giving detailed reasons that the requesters can argue against. Once an agency invokes the Glomar doctrine, courts generally afford it great weight and rarely inquire further.And that's at the federal level, where claims of national security should carry with them a bit more credulousness. The actual "Glomar" in the original "Glomar response" referred to the CIA salvage vessel being used to find a sunken Soviet submarine. These days, it's used to tell FOIA requesters that the NSA can neither confirm nor deny it uses terms like "collect it all," or has compiled any data at all on the requester him/herself.
The NYPD has now been granted a federal power, without having to show its national security claims are valid. If the requested documents do indeed contain information possibly damaging to national security, why isn't there a federal agency involved? It's well known that the NYPD prefers to run a highly autonomous agency -- one that inserts itself into terrorist investigations overseas but openly rebuffs FBI assistance in its own town. But if you're going to claim you may or may not be in possession of investigatory documents with national security ramifications, then you should also be asked to explain why the FBI, DHS or other national agency isn't included on the CC line, and why this federal agency isn't the one kicking out the Glomar response.
Considering the documents currently being Glomared ("...a request by Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid for records regarding NYPD surveillance of himself and his mosque…") are related to the counter-terrorist investigations of the recently shuttered "Demographics Unit," there's a good chance no federal agency would touch them with a 10-foot redaction. The division seemed to pride itself on willful violations of civil liberties, but this methodology turned the (often minimal) fruits of its investigations too toxic for even the CIA to partake in.
So, the NYPD may actually be sitting on something that implicates national security, but it's finding no federal takers thanks to its inability to respect the Constitution or to work well with others. That's a problem. But it's not nearly as much of a problem as being granted a new power to abuse in its quest for law enforcement opacity.