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D.C. Circuit rules on FOIA exemptions 1 and 3

May 12, 2009 D.C. Circuit rules on FOIA exemptions 1 and 3

On May 8, 2009, the D.C. Circuit issued a detailed ruling on exemptions 1 and 3 of the Freedom of Information Act. Larson, et al. v. Dept. of State, et al.

Larson describes the two FOIA exemptions as follows:

"Exemption 1 protects matters ‘specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and . . . in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive order.’ 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1). Exemption 3 covers matters ‘specifically exempted from disclosure by statute,’ provided that such statute leaves no discretion on disclosure or ‘establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.’ Id. § 552(b)(3)."

Larson (emphasis added).

The Larson FOIA litigation was filed because "plaintiffs in this case each independently sought information about past violence in Guatemala from government agencies pursuant to FOIA."

ADDENDUM: See my other FOIA blogposts here.

Larson upheld the trial court’s denial of FOIA disclosure, summarizing its reasoning as follows:

"We affirm summary judgment for the defendant agencies, agreeing with the district court that the DOS responded appropriately to Holdenried’s request, that the affidavits of the NSA and the CIA were sufficient to support their reliance on FOIA Exemptions 1 and 3, and that in camera review was not necessary to reach this decision. The withheld materials at issue in this case are precisely the sort of documents and information intended to be protected from public disclosure by Exemptions 1 and 3. We deny the plaintiffs’ request for judicial notice of articles relating to Guatemala and government secrecy because those articles are irrelevant to our inquiry; taking notice of them would not affect our opinion."

The FOIA’s language might put civil libertarian readers into ecstasy upon first reading it. However, court opinions over the decades show that the FOIA often does not deliver good results without needing lawyers to duke it out in court; and even then good results do not always come. The frequent need for FOIA litigation shuts out those who do not have the funds to pay a lawyer or the ability to find a public interest or pro bono lawyer.

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