A federal judge in New York has decided that he lacks the authority to order the government to disclose information regarding the treatment of Sept. 11 detainees – even if the government’s actions were unlawful.
“Courts are not invested with the competence to second-guess the CIA Director regarding the appropriateness of any particular intelligence source or method,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein.
Thursday’s ruling comes in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union for documents detailing the government’s treatment of suspected terrorists, including records related to the destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogations. A criminal investigation into why the tapes were destroyed is ongoing.
The ACLU contends that the government’s treatment of detainees violated both domestic and international law. Therefore, according to the ACLU, the information should not be considered “intelligence sources and methods” that are exempt from disclosure under federal public records law.
“There is no question that the CIA has authority under the law to withhold information relating to ‘intelligence sources and methods,’” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer. “But while this authority is broad, it is not unlimited, and it certainly should not be converted into a license to suppress evidence of criminal activity.”
The case focused on a FOIA exemption that is broadly worded to cover information “specifically exempted from disclosure by statute.” The Supreme Court has held that the National Security Act, which calls for the Director of Central Intelligence to protect “intelligence sources and methods,” qualifies as a statutory exemption.
In Thursday’s ruling, Judge Hellerstein wrote that there is no basis for the ACLU’s argument that statutory exemptions must be limited to “lawful” intelligence sources. Hellerstein said that to insert such “limiting language” into the exemption would “confer an unwarranted competence to the district court to evaluate national intelligence decisions.”
“Declining to reach the legality of the underlying conduct is not, as Plaintiffs asserted at oral argument, an abdication of the Court’s responsibility under the statutory structure,” the judge wrote. “It is the result commanded by the statute.”