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Assassination Archives & Rsch. Ctr. v. CIA, No. 21-1237, 2023 WL 2184550 (D.D.C. Feb. 22, 2023) (Cooper, J.)


Assassination Archives & Rsch. Ctr. v. CIA, No. 21-1237, 2023 WL 2184550 (D.D.C. Feb. 22, 2023) (Cooper, J.)

Re:  Request for records concerning assassination of President Kennedy

Disposition:  Granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment; denying plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment

  • Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search & Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records:  The court holds that “the CIA has detailed the tailored search it conducted to locate responsive records.”  The court relates that defendant “explains that experienced professionals knowledgeable about the agency’s record holdings tailored searches in the two records systems where they believed responsive records likely resided . . . .”  “For each system, searches were conducted using key terms . . . .”  “Hard-copy files suspected of containing responsive information were searched ‘line-by-line, page-by-page.’” 

    The court relates that “[t]he CIA did not search its operational files because, in its view, ‘the requested information does not fall within the scope of any exception that would warrant a search of the CIA’s exempted operational files.’”  “The CIA Information Act generally exempts CIA operational files from the search, review, publication, and disclosure requirements of FOIA.”  “However, ‘exempted operational files shall continue to be subject to search and review for information concerning . . . the specific subject matter of an investigation by the congressional intelligence committees,’ or other specifically enumerated investigative offices, ‘for any impropriety, or violation of law, Executive order, or Presidential directive, in the conduct of an intelligence activity.’”  “[Plaintiff] [argues] that the agency should have searched its operational records for information about [two individuals] because the JFK assassination has been thoroughly investigated by the Senate Select Committee on Government Operation with Respect to Intelligence Activities . . . and has also been the subject of investigations by the Department of Justice, the Warren Commission, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations.”  “But [plaintiff] has not offered any evidence that those investigations concerned the specific subjects of its FOIA request.”  The court finds that “[t]he fact that President Kennedy’s assassination has been investigated by numerous official bodies does not mean that [the two individuals specified by plaintiff] were the ‘specific subject’ of any investigation.”  “Nor does [plaintiff] provide evidence to support such a conclusion.”  The court finds that plaintiff’s argument “begs the question by requiring the Court to believe the speculative theory that [plaintiff] hopes to investigate.”  “Speculation is not enough to demand the CIA search its operational files.”

    “[Plaintiff] also contends that ‘the inadequacy of the CIA’s search is evidenced by the absence of records pertaining to known operations, events and activities.’”  The court finds that “[i]t is well-settled, moreover, that the adequacy of a search ‘is generally determined not by the fruits of the search, but by the appropriateness of the methods used to carry out the search.’”  “[Plaintiff] cannot rely on mere speculation that records likely exist to contest the search’s adequacy.”

    Separately, the court relates that “[plaintiff] requests that the Court order the CIA to search ‘classified files retrieved from former President Trump’ because ‘President Trump has expressed strong interest in the assassination of President Kennedy and may have had possession of government files on the topic.’”  “But [plaintiff] offers nothing but speculation to support that the collection of recovered documents were ‘likely’ to contain responsive documents.”  “Further, even if [plaintiff] had more than speculation to support its request, it is not entitled to additional searches after the date the search was ‘tasked.’”  “Because any classified files that may have been found in Mr. Trump’s possession were identified and recovered after the cut-off date, the CIA need not redo its search.”
  • Exemption 3:  Regarding the use of Exemption 3, the Court will grant summary judgment for the agency.”  The court relates that “[t]he CIA withheld several documents in part or in full under Exemption 3, which applies to records exempted from release under FOIA by another statute . . . .”  “The CIA bases its withholdings on two specific statutes:  the National Security Act, . . . and the Central Intelligence Agency Act . . . .”  “The National Security Act broadly directs the Director of National Intelligence to ‘protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure.’”  “The CIA Act prevents the disclosure of ‘the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency.’”  “Both statutes have been recognized as Exemption 3 withholding statutes.”  “[Defendant] attests in [its] declaration that the CIA invoked the National Security Act to withhold ‘information that would reveal intelligence sources and methods.’”  “[It] elaborates that the intelligence methods at issue are still in use or could be used, and that disclosure of these methods would ‘undermine U.S. intelligence capabilities and render collection efforts ineffective.’”  “Specifically, [defendant] notes that the CIA redacted ‘locations of specific overseas facilities and classified internal CIA polices,’ ‘a comprehensive inspection of intelligence activities, sources, and methods of the Psychological and Paramilitary Operations Staff,’ and ‘unclassified intelligence methods . . . such as dissemination controls.’”  “In addition, [defendant] asserts that [it] relied on the CIA Act to withhold ‘officers’ names and other identifying information as well as functional and organizational information, among other items.’”  The court relates that “[plaintiff] contests the CIA’s use of Exemption 3, arguing that the withholdings were applied to materials that are over 50 years old and, thus, should be automatically declassified.”  “According to [plaintiff], Exemption 3 only applies to ‘unauthorized disclosure[s]’ and publishing information that should be automatically declassified cannot be considered unauthorized.”  “But [the court finds that] that argument runs contrary to Supreme Court precedent.”
  • Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements & In Camera Inspection:  The court relates that “[plaintiff] asserts that it is unreasonable for the CIA to withhold 50-year-old documents in full, and asks the Court to review the withheld documents in camera to determine if the CIA complied with its obligations.”  The court finds that “‘[a]gencies are entitled to a presumption that they complied with the obligation to disclose reasonably segregable material.’”  “[Defendant] explained that the CIA conducted a line-by-line review and released all reasonably segregable records.”  “The burden is on [plaintiff] to proffer contrary evidence to rebut the applicable presumption . . . and it has not done so.”  “Nor has it provided evidence to justify in camera review.”
  • Litigation Considerations, Discovery:  The court relates that, “[a]sserting that the CIA has undermined its credibility by initially denying receipt of the request, [plaintiff] insists that discovery is necessary to clarify the issue.”  “The Court disagrees.”  “Given that the CIA subsequently responded to [plaintiff’s] request, there is no controversy requiring the extraordinary relief of permitting discovery in a FOIA case.”
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 3
Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search
Litigation Considerations, Discovery
Litigation Considerations, In Camera Inspection
Litigation Considerations, “Reasonably Segregable” Requirements
Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records
Updated March 22, 2023