FOIA Guide, 2004 Edition: Exemption 7(F)

DOJ Seal  

Freedom of Information Act Guide, May 2004


Exemption 7(F)

Exemption 7(F) permits the withholding of law enforcement-related
information necessary to protect the physical safety of a wide range of individuals.
This exemption provides broad protection to "any individual" when disclosure of
information about him "could reasonably be expected to endanger [his] life or
physical safety." (1)

Prior to the 1986 FOIA amendments, (2) Exemption 7(F) by its former terms
protected records that "would . . . endanger the life or physical safety of law
enforcement personnel," (3) and it had been invoked to protect both federal and local
law enforcement officers. (4) Cases decided after the 1986 FOIA amendments continue
this strong protection for law enforcement agents. (5)

Under the amended language of Exemption 7(F), courts have applied the
broader coverage now offered by the exemption, holding that it can afford
protection of the "names and identifying information of . . . federal employees, and
third persons who may be unknown" to the requester in connection with particular
law enforcement matters. (6) Withholding such information can be necessary in order
to protect such persons from possible harm by a requester who has threatened
them in the past. (7) Indeed, many courts have held that the very expansive language
of "any individual" encompasses the protection of the identities of informants. (8)

Significantly, Exemption 7(F) protection has been held to remain applicable
even after a law enforcement officer subsequently retired. (9) Moreover, it has been
held that Exemption 7(F) can be employed to protect even the identities of
individuals who testified at the requester's criminal trial. (10) And one court approved a
rather novel, but certainly appropriate, application of this exemption to a description
in an FBI laboratory report of a homemade machine gun because its disclosure
would create the real possibility that law enforcement officers would have to face
"individuals armed with homemade devices constructed from the expertise of other
law enforcement people." (11)

When Exemption 7(F) was broadened by the 1986 FOIA amendments, that
action created a broader potential for the exemption that obviously had yet to be
fully realized. (12) Now, in the current post-September 11, 2001 homeland security
environment, Exemption 7(F) provides vital new avenues of protection for sensitive
information that could prove deadly if obtained by those seeking to do harm to the
public on a large scale. (13) Indeed, a court recently found Exemption 7(F) readily
available to protect against disclosure of "inundation maps" that showed projected
patterns in which downstream areas would be catastrophically flooded in the event
of breaches in nearby dams. (14) The court reasoned that releasing such information in
the face of current homeland security concerns "could increase the risk of an attack"
on one dam over another, and on such dam targets overall, because terrorists would
be able to use these maps to estimate the amount of damage and carnage caused
by flooding. (15)

Although Exemption 7(F)'s coverage is in large part duplicative of that
afforded by Exemption 7(C), it is potentially broader in that no balancing is required
for withholding under Exemption 7(F), (16) so agencies should give careful
consideration to the added measure of protection that it affords in all law
enforcement contexts. (17) Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any circumstance in which
the public's interest in disclosure could outweigh the personal safety of any
individual. (18)

In sum, Exemption 7(F) has proven to be of great utility to law enforcement
agencies, given the lessened "could reasonably be expected" harm standard now in
effect. (19) Agencies can reasonably infer from this modification that they have
Congress's approval to withhold information whenever they determine that there is
a reasonable likelihood of its disclosure risking physical harm to anyone. (20)

    1. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(F) (2000).

    2. Pub. L. No. 99-570, § 1802, 100 Stat. 3207,
    3207-48 to 3207-49 (1986).

    3. Pub. L. No. 93-502, 88 Stat. 1561, 1563 (1974) (subsequently
    amended).

    4. See, e.g., Maroscia v. Levi, 569 F.2d
    1000, 1002 (7th Cir. 1977) (FBI Special Agents and also "other law enforcement
    personnel"); Barham v. Secret Serv., No. 82-2130, slip op. at 5 (W.D.
    Tenn. Sept. 13, 1982) (Secret Service agents); Docal v. Bennsinger,
    543 F. Supp. 38, 48 (M.D. Pa. 1981) (DEA special agents, supervisory special
    agents, and local law enforcement officers); Nunez v. DEA, 497 F.
    Supp. 209, 212 (S.D.N.Y. 1980) (DEA special agents); Ray v. Turner,
    468 F. Supp. 730, 735 (D.D.C. 1979) (U.S. Customs Service agent).

    5. See, e.g., Rugiero v. United States Dep't
    of Justice
    , 257 F.3d 534, 552 (6th Cir. 2001) (protecting names of DEA
    agents), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1134 (2002); Johnston v. United
    States Dep't of Justice
    , No. 97-2173, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 18557, at
    *2 (8th Cir. Aug. 10, 1998) (protecting names of DEA agents); Housley
    v. DEA
    , No. 92-16946, 1994 U.S. App. LEXIS 11232, at *4 (9th Cir. May
    4, 1994) (finding Exemption 7(F) properly used to protect "physical safety");
    Blanton v. United States Dep't of Justice, 182 F. Supp. 2d 81, 87
    (D.D.C. 2002) (acknowledging that disclosure of identities of FBI Special
    Agents could endanger their safety), aff'd, 64 Fed. Appx. 787 (D.C.
    Cir. 2003); Rubis v. DEA, No. 01-1132, slip op. at 4, 7 (D.D.C. Sept.
    30, 2002) (protecting identities of DEA agents who routinely deal with violators,
    because disclosure would place them in danger); Garcia v. United States
    Dep't of Justice
    , 181 F. Supp. 2d 356, 378 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (protecting
    names of FBI Special Agents and other government agents); Amro v. United
    States Customs Serv.
    , 128 F. Supp. 2d 776, 788 (E.D. Pa. 2001) (protecting
    names of DEA supervisory agents and other law enforcement officers); Hronek
    v. DEA
    , 16 F. Supp. 2d 1260, 1275 (D. Or. 1998) (protecting names and
    identities of DEA agents, supervisory agents, and other law enforcement
    officers), aff'd, 7 Fed. Appx. 591 (9th Cir. 2001); Hazel v. Dep't
    of Justice
    , No. 95-01992, slip op. at 13 (D.D.C. July 2, 1998) (protecting
    correctional officers' names); Johnson v. DEA, No. 97-2231, 1998
    U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9802, at *14 (D.D.C. June 25, 1998) (protecting DEA agents'
    names because disclosure could have detrimental effect on operations), aff'd
    in pertinent part
    , 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 7332 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 2, 1999);
    Franklin v. United States Dep't of Justice, No. 97-1225, slip op.
    at 15 (S.D. Fla. June 15, 1998) (magistrate's recommendation) ("It is in
    the public interest not to disclose the identity of [DEA] Special Agents
    so that they may continue to effectively pursue undercover and investigative
    assignments."), adopted (S.D. Fla. June 26, 1998), aff'd per curiam,
    189 F.3d 485 (11th Cir. 1999); McGhghy v. DEA, No. C 97-0185, slip
    op. at 12 (N.D. Iowa May 29, 1998) (finding that DEA "established a clear
    nexus between disclosure and harm to agents and officers"), aff'd per
    curiam
    , No. 98-2989 (8th Cir. July 19, 1999); Fedrick v. United States
    Dep't of Justice
    , 984 F. Supp. 659, 665 (W.D.N.Y. 1997) (magistrate's
    recommendation) (protecting names of DEA agents, supervisory agents, and
    other law enforcement personnel), adopted, No. 95-558 (W.D.N.Y. Oct.
    28, 1997), aff'd sub nom. Fedrick v. Huff, 165 F.3d 13 (2d
    Cir. 1998) (unpublished table decision); Jimenez v. FBI, 938 F. Supp.
    21, 30-31 (D.D.C. 1996) (holding that disclosure of names of DEA special
    agents, supervisors, and local law enforcement officer could result in "physical
    attacks, threats, or harassment"; disclosure of DEA's investigative personnel
    would endanger lives of its agents and have "detrimental effect" on its
    operations); Badalamenti v. United States Dep't of State, 899 F.
    Supp. 542, 550 (D. Kan. 1995) (protecting names of law enforcement personnel);
    Almy v. Dep't of Justice, No. 90-362, slip op. at 26 (N.D. Ind. Apr.
    13, 1995) (protecting names of DEA agents, supervisory agents, and other
    law enforcement personnel), aff'd, 114 F.3d 1191 (7th Cir. 1997)
    (unpublished table decision); Manchester v. DEA, 823 F. Supp. 1259,
    1273 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (protecting names and identities of DEA special agents,
    supervisory special agents, and other law enforcement officers). But
    see
    Pub. Employees for Envtl. Responsibility v. EPA, 978 F. Supp.
    955, 964 (D. Colo. 1997) (finding no risk to agency investigators in disclosing
    EPA Inspector General guidelines).

    6. Luther v. IRS, No. 5-86-130, slip op. at
    6 (D. Minn. Aug. 13, 1987); see also Johnston, 1998 U.S. App.
    LEXIS 18557, at *2 (protecting names of DEA personnel, local law enforcement
    personnel, and third parties); McQueen v. United States, 264 F. Supp.
    2d 502, 521 (S.D. Tex. 2003) (protecting identities of informants and undercover
    agents participating in plaintiff's criminal investigation) (appeal pending);
    Brady-Lunny v. Massey, 185 F. Supp. 2d 928, 932 (C.D. Ill. 2002)
    (finding that release of list of detainees' names would endanger life and
    physical safety given security risks that always are present in inmate populations);
    Garcia, 181 F. Supp. 2d at 378 (protecting "names and/or identifying
    information concerning private citizens and third parties who provided information"
    to FBI); Hidalgo v. Bureau of Prisons, No. 00-1229, slip op. at 4
    (D.D.C. June 6, 2001) (withholding information about inmate-plaintiff's
    "separatees"), summary affirmance granted, No. 01-5257 (D.C. Cir.
    Aug. 29, 2002); Bartolotta v. FBI, No. 99-1145, slip op. at 5-6 (D.D.C.
    July 13, 2000) (protecting identities of inmate-plaintiff's "separatees");
    Willis v. FBI, No. 99-CV-73481, slip op. at 20-21 (E.D. Mich. July
    11, 2000) (magistrate's recommendation) (protecting names and identifying
    information of federal employees and third parties), adopted (E.D.
    Mich. Sept. 29, 2000); Russell v. Barr, No. 92-2546, slip op. at
    11-12 (D.D.C. Aug. 28, 1998) (protecting identities of individuals who cooperated
    in investigation and prosecution involving spousal murder when agency demonstrated
    requester's reputation for violent behavior); Isley v. Executive Office
    for United States Attorneys
    , No. 96-0123, slip op. at 8-9 (D.D.C. Mar.
    27, 1997) (upholding agency's nondisclosure of identifying information about
    individuals who provided information during murder investigation when there
    was reasonable likelihood that disclosure would threaten their lives), appeal
    dismissed
    , No. 97-5105 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 8, 1997); Anderson v. United
    States Marshals Serv.
    , 943 F. Supp. 37, 40 (D.D.C. 1996) (protecting
    identity of individual who required separation from incarcerated requester
    when disclosure could endanger his safety); Sanders v. United States
    Dep't of Justice
    , No. 91-2263, 1992 WL 97785, at *4 (D. Kan. Apr. 21,
    1992) (finding that disclosing identities of medical personnel who prepared
    requester's mental health records would endanger their safety, in view of
    requester's mental difficulties); Pfeffer v. Dir., Bureau of Prisons,
    No. 89-899, slip op. at 4 (D.D.C. Apr. 18, 1990) (holding that information
    about smuggling weapons into prisons could reasonably be expected to endanger
    physical safety of "some individual" and therefore is properly withheld).
    But see Trupei v. Huff, No. 96-2850, 1998 WL 8986, at *4 (D.D.C.
    Jan. 7, 1998) (finding government's concern for safety of individuals whose
    identities are unknown to requester to be "conclusory," warranting only
    Exemption 7(C) protection); Linn v. United States Dep't of Justice,
    No. 92-1406, 1995 WL 631847, at *9 (D.D.C. Aug. 22, 1995) (finding that
    the agency "has not established even a minimal nexus" between the
    withheld information and harm to persons discussed in the file).

    7. See, e.g., Ortloff v. United States Dep't
    of Justice
    , No. 98-2819, slip op. at 10 (D.D.C. Mar. 22, 2002) (finding
    the withholding of the "name of one witness who was identified as being
    potentially subject to future harm" proper, given plaintiff's conviction
    for violent acts); Shores v. FBI, 185 F. Supp. 2d 77, 85 (D.D.C.
    2002) (approving the nondisclosure of names of, and identifying information
    about, three cooperating witnesses when information obtained from one of
    those witnesses led to plaintiff's murder conviction and "prompted [p]laintiff
    to attempt to have a member of that witness' [sic] family murdered"); Blanton,
    182 F. Supp. 2d at 87 (protecting identities of FBI Special Agents and non-law
    enforcement personnel assisting in investigation, because "[e]ven though
    [requester] is incarcerated, his threats against persons responsible for
    his arrest and now his conviction make it possible that these individuals
    could be targets of physical harm"); Burke v. United States Dep't of
    Justice
    , No. 96-1739, 1999 WL 1032814, at *9 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 1999)
    (finding that disclosing identities of "agents, other agencies' personnel
    and sources could expose [them] to violent retaliation," given requester's
    violent history); Anderson v. United States Dep't of Justice, No.
    95-1888, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4731, at **10-11 (D.D.C. Mar. 31, 1999) (finding
    that releasing witnesses' names could subject them to harassment and threats,
    given requester's history of carrying firearms); Crooker v. IRS,
    No. 94-0755, 1995 WL 430605, at *5 (D.D.C. Apr. 27, 1995) (protecting confidential
    informants when requester has history of harassing, intimidating, and abusing
    witnesses); Manna v. United States Dep't of Justice, 815 F. Supp.
    798, 810 (D.N.J. 1993) (finding that releasing FBI reports would endanger
    life or physical safety of associates of requester in organized crime case),
    aff'd on other grounds, 51 F.3d 1158 (3d Cir. 1995); Author Servs.
    v. IRS
    , No. 90-2187, slip op. at 7 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 14, 1991) (withholding
    identities of third parties and handwriting and identities of IRS employees
    in view of previous conflict and hostility between parties).

    8. Housley v. FBI, No. 87-3231, 1988 WL 30751,
    at *3 (D.D.C. Mar. 24, 1988) (protecting identities of informants); see
    also
    Bartolotta, No. 99-1145, slip op. at 5-6 (D.D.C. July 13,
    2000) (protecting name of, and identifying information about, confidential
    inmate-source); Willis, No. 99-CV-73481, slip op. at 20-21 (E.D.
    Mich. July 11, 2000) (magistrate's recommendation) (protecting names of,
    and identifying information about, sources); Pray v. FBI, No. 95-0380,
    1998 WL 440843, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 1998) (protecting names of sources);
    Jimenez, 938 F. Supp. at 30-31 (protecting names and identifying
    information furnished by confidential sources); Bruscino v. Fed. Bureau
    of Prisons
    , No. 94-1955, 1995 WL 444406, at *11 (D.D.C. May 12, 1995)
    (protecting investigatory information obtained from sources whose lives
    would be endangered by disclosure, especially in view of "rough justice"
    to be rendered upon informants should identities be disclosed), summary
    affirmance granted in pertinent part, vacated & remanded in part
    ,
    No. 95-5213, 1996 WL 393101 (D.C. Cir. June 24, 1996).

    9. See Moody v. DEA, 592 F. Supp. 556,
    559 (D.D.C. 1984).

    10. See Linn v. United States Dep't of Justice,
    No. 92-1406, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9321, at *17 (D.D.C. May 29, 1997) (protecting
    witnesses who testified) (Exemptions 7(C) and 7(F)), appeal dismissed
    voluntarily
    , No. 97-5122 (D.C. Cir. July 14, 1997); Beck v. United
    States Dep't of Justice
    , No. 88-3433, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1179, at
    **10-11 (D.D.C. July 24, 1991) (finding that exemption was not necessarily
    waived when information revealed at public trial); Prows v. United States
    Dep't of Justice
    , No. 87-1657, 1989 WL 39288, at *2 (D.D.C. Apr. 13,
    1989) (finding, as under Exemption 7(C), DEA agents' identities protectible
    even though they testified at trial), aff'd, No. 89-5185 (D.C. Cir.
    Feb. 26, 1990). But see Myers v. United States Dep't of Justice,
    No. 85-1746, 1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20058, at *6 (D.D.C. Sept. 22, 1986)
    (declining to protect law enforcement personnel who testified) (Exemptions
    7(C) and 7(F)).

    11. LaRouche v. Webster, No. 75-6010, 1984
    WL 1061, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 23, 1984); accord FOIA Post,
    "New Attorney General FOIA Memorandum Issued" (posted 10/15/01) (discussing
    use of Exemption 2 to protect critical systems, facilities, stockpiles,
    and other assets from security breaches and harm given their potential for
    use as weapons of mass destruction in and of themselves); see also
    Pfeffer, No. 89-899, slip op. at 4 (D.D.C. Apr. 14, 1990) (approving
    withholding of information on smuggling of weapons into prison); cf.
    FOIA Post, "Guidance on Homeland Security Information Issued" (posted
    3/21/02) (instructing agencies to take appropriate action to safeguard information
    related to America's homeland security by giving careful consideration to
    all applicable FOIA exemptions, such as Exemption 2); Lawyers Comm. for
    Human Rights v. INS
    , 721 F. Supp. 552, 571 (S.D.N.Y. 1989) (declining
    to identify individuals listed in INS Lookout Book on basis of "ideological
    exclusion" provision other than by occupation and country, because "some
    individuals could be placed in grave danger in their own countries if it
    were learned that the American government suspects them of being affiliated
    with terrorist organizations") (Exemption 7(C)).

    12. See Attorney General's Memorandum on
    the 1986 Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act
    18 (Dec. 1987)
    [hereinafter Attorney General's 1986 Amendments Memorandum] (discussing
    the amendments, and stating that agencies should consider the modifications
    of Exemption 7(F) as a signal to rely on it "whenever there is any reasonable
    likelihood of a FOIA disclosure endangering any person"); see also
    NARA v. Favish, 124 S. Ct. 1570, 1579 (evincing the Supreme Court's
    reliance on "the Attorney General's consistent interpretation of" the FOIA
    in successive such Attorney General memoranda), reh'g denied, No.
    02-409, 2004 WL 1085633 (U.S. May 17, 2004).

    13. Cf. FOIA Post, "New Attorney General
    FOIA Memorandum Issued" (posted 10/15/01) (discussing the "need to protect
    critical systems, facilities, stockpiles, and other assets from security
    breaches and harm -- and in some instances from their potential use as weapons
    of mass destruction in and of themselves," as well as "any agency information
    that could enable someone to succeed in causing the feared harm").

    14. Living Rivers, Inc. v. United States Bureau
    of Reclamation
    , 272 F. Supp. 2d 1313, 1321-22 (D. Utah 2003) (finding
    that disclosure of inundation maps could reasonably be expected to place
    at risk lives of individuals in downstream areas that would be flooded by
    breach of dams by increasing risk of terrorist attacks on dams); see
    also
    Ctr. for Nat'l Sec. Studies v. United States Dep't of Justice,
    215 F. Supp. 2d 94, 106, 108-09 (D.D.C. 2002) (holding that while Exemption
    7(F) does not protect names of individuals detained after terrorist attack,
    or identities of their attorneys, it does protect dates and locations of
    their detention, arrest, and release), rev'd in other part, aff'd in
    part on other grounds & remanded
    , 331 F.3d 918 (D.C. Cir. 2003)
    (Exemption 7(A)), cert. denied, 124 S. Ct. 1041 (2004).

    15. Living Rivers, 272 F. Supp. 2d at 1321-22
    (concluding that the requested FOIA disclosure could "aid in carrying out
    a terrorist attack").

    16. See FOIA Update, Vol. V, No. 2,
    at 5.

    17. Accord Attorney General's Memorandum for
    Heads of All Federal Departments and Agencies Regarding the Freedom of Information
    Act (Oct. 12, 2001) [hereinafter Attorney General Ashcroft's FOIA Memorandum],
    reprinted in FOIA Post (posted 10/15/01) ("I encourage your
    agency to carefully consider the protection of all [applicable] values and
    interests when making disclosure determinations under the FOIA."); see
    also
    FOIA Post, "FOIA Officers Conference Held on Homeland
    Security" (posted 7/3/03) (identifying homeland security context as within
    realm of law enforcement for purposes of FOIA protection, and discussing
    Exemption 7(F) as basis for protecting sensitive homeland security-related
    information).

    18. See Colon v. Executive Office for United
    States Attorneys
    , No. 98-0180, 1998 WL 695631, at *6 (D.D.C. Sept. 29,
    1998) (reiterating that it is not in public interest to disclose identities
    of law enforcement officers); Franklin, No. 97-1225, slip op. at
    15 (S.D. Fla. June 15, 1998) (magistrate's recommendation) (finding that
    "it is in the public interest" to protect names of DEA agents), adopted
    (S.D. Fla. June 26, 1998).

    19. See, e.g., Spirko v. USPS, 147 F.3d
    992, 994 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (protecting handwritten notes about suspects);
    Brady-Lunny, 185 F. Supp. 2d at 932 (recognizing risk to physical
    safety present in inmate populations, "given inmates' gang ties, interest
    in escape, and motive for violence against informants and rivals"; finding
    that disclosure of detainees' names could threaten security); Blanton,
    182 F. Supp. 2d at 86 (withholding the identities of "non-law enforcement
    persons who assist the government in its criminal investigation (such as
    persons in the Witness Protection Program)"); Garcia, 181 F. Supp.
    2d at 373 (protecting the personal information of any of the agents or other
    witnesses whose identities are contained in a file); Crompton, No.
    95-8771, slip op. at 16 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 26, 1997) (finding withholding of
    agents' names, signatures, and identifying information proper).

    20. See Attorney General's 1986 Amendments
    Memorandum
    18 & n.34 (Dec. 1987) (suggesting that Exemption 7(F)
    as amended be applied whenever there is any likelihood of harm);
    see also, e.g., Dickie v. Dep't of the Treasury, No. 86-649,
    slip op. at 13 (D.D.C. Mar. 31, 1987) (upholding application of Exemption
    7(F) as amended based upon agency judgment of "very strong likelihood" of
    harm); see also FOIA Update, Vol. XV, No. 2, at 3; Attorney
    General Ashcroft's FOIA Memorandum, reprinted in FOIA Post
    (posted 10/15/01) (emphasizing federal government's commitment to enhancing
    effectiveness of law enforcement agencies).

Go to: Table of Contents