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Court examines FOI expedited review in Diana records case

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Sep 28, 2000    

Court examines FOI expedited review in Diana records case

  • A federal district court denied expedited review of a Freedom of Information Act request for federal agency information on the crash that killed Princess Diana, but not before the judge criticized federal agencies for ignoring the plea.

A federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. laid ground rules for court enforcement of relatively new and, so far, little used regulations allowing Freedom of Information Act requesters to seek priority responses at federal agencies.

In late September, Judge Colleen Kollar Kotelly denied an injunction to force federal agencies to expedite requests from Mohamed Al Fayed and Punch Limited, the British political satire magazine he owns, for records on the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, and his son Dodi. The two died in a car crash in France in 1997 .

Afterward Al Fayed fell victim to a fraudulent scheme to sell him fabricated Central Intelligence Agency documents suggesting that the crash was a successful assassination of the Princess and his son by British intelligence. He and Punch tried to gain more information on the crash and related events, ultimately filing 21 requests to branches of federal agencies. They asked for expedited review of their requests under the provisions of the Electronic FOI Act of 1996 saying the information potentially points to federal government knowledge of British intelligence involvement in the crash and of the attempted fraud, that it relates to an event that has captured enormous media attention, and that records could ultimately influence a French investigation into the crash. When they received no responses, they asked the court to force a review of their requests to the CIA, the Department of Justice, and other agencies.

The government argued it had to first appeal the denial of expedited review to the agencies, but Kollar Kotelly said the law clearly allows court review of an agency denial of expedited review or the denial of an appeal of the matter. Failure to respond is considered a denial.

The government also argued Al Fayed and the periodical would not likely be awarded expedited review. They had not demonstrated a “compelling need” for faster processing because there is no particular urgency to inform the public about the government’s activity on the matter, it said.

The judge agreed and denied the injunction, noting an expedited process in this case would displace other requesters. Disclosure of non-exempt information always serves the public’s interest, she said, but in the “world of limited resources” the material “may not in every case receive immediate processing.”

However, she chastised the agencies for not responding at all to the requests for an expedited review. She quoted remarks by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the sponsor of The Electronic FOI Act that “routine failure” to comply with the statutory time limits is “bad for morale and breeds contempt by citizens who expect government officials to abide by, not routinely break, the law.” Actions by the agencies in this suit had done nothing to “boost morale,” she said.

(Al Fayed v. CIA; counsel for Al Fayed: Mark Zaid, Washington, D.C.) RD

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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