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U.S. Trade Representative must release agreement documents

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

U.S. Trade Representative must release agreement documents

  • Environmental groups win access to documents on U.S. trade agreements with Chile.

Jan. 2, 2003 — A Washington, D.C. district court ruled Dec. 19, that the federal government must disclose more information about its negotiation of the United States-Chile Free Trade Agreement.

Three environmental groups filed suit for the information under the Freedom of Information Act in November 2001. The groups include Earthjustice, representing Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth and the Center for International Environmental Law. The three are non-profit groups that monitor international trade and environmental issues. They were concerned about the lack of transparency and secrecy surrounding the negotiations.

Judge Paul Friedman ordered the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to release all but a few highly sensitive documents relating to exchanges between the governments of Chile and the United States.

In the groups’ original FOI request for the documents, the USTR denied access under Exemption 1 and Exemption 5 of the FOI Act.

The court held that a small number of documents could be withheld under Exemption 1 of the FOI Act, which allows the government to keep information deemed sensitive to national security or foreign policy secret.

The court also ruled, however that a larger number of documents withheld under Exemption 5, which excludes inter-agency and intra-agency memorandums from disclosure, must be disclosed under the FOI Act.

The court held that the Chilean government could not be considered an “agency consultant … [because] it represents its own interests ‘at the expense of others seeking benefits inadequate to satisfy everyone.'”

Friedman held that Chile was an “independent party promoting its own interests whose communications with USTR necessarily fall beyond the scope of Exemption 5.” Chile was not providing neutral advice to the USTR.

Using the test first used by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Department of the Interior v. Klamath Water Users case, Friedman held that “the critical factor in deciding the inter-agency status of an outside party is the degree of self-interest pursued by that party, as compared to the interest in providing neutral advice or consultation to the agency.”

“This ruling raised the bar for transparency in future free-trade negotiations like the Free Trade Area of the Americas,” said Martin Wagner, director of international programs for Earthjustice, in a press release. “From now on the government can no longer negotiate in secret, hiding its actions from the public until it’s too late to change the terms of the agreement. The court’s decision will give the public the information it needs to make sure the government is truly negotiating in the people’s interest.”

(Center for International Environmental Law v. Office of the United States Trade Representative) GS

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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