Treasury told to release documents related to terrorist watch list

Hannah Bergman | Freedom of Information | Feature | October 8, 2008

The Treasury Department must disclose petitions from individuals and groups who want off a list of suspicious people maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, a federal court ruled last week.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the release in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco.

OFAC, part of the Treasury, maintains the list of Specially Designated Nationals – a publicly available compilation of suspected terrorists, drug traffickers, and other suspicious figures. The list includes commonly held names and thus draws frequent requests from people wrongly included to be removed from it.

The Lawyers Committee sought, among other things, “the number and nature of complaints from individuals whose names were flagged as similar to a name on" the list, "the number and nature of complaints from individuals whose credit reports contained an alert regarding a possible name match” to the list, and the responses to those complaints.

In a ruling issued Sept. 30, Judge Phyllis Hamilton ordered the release of the records with redactions. The Treasury Department had argued the records were categorically protected because they were law enforcement records and their disclosure would interfere with law enforcement proceedings, as well as an invasion of personal privacy.

The government also argued almost all of the other exemptions to FOIA protected the records,  including provisions protecting trade secrets; commercial and financial information; agency internal personnel rules and practices; and confidential sources. In each instance, Hamilton found for the Lawyers Committee.