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FOIA Update: Supreme Court Decides Sims

FOIA Update
Vol. VI, No. 2

Supreme Court Decides Sims

In a major victory for the CIA, the Supreme Court on April 16 unanimously ruled in the Government's favor in Central Intelligence Agency v. Sims, 105 S. Ct. 1881 (1985).

Sims raised the issue of the proper meaning of the term "intelligence source" under 50 U.S.C. § 403(d)(3), the CIA's major Exemption 3 statute, which authorizes the Director of Central Intelligence to protect the Agency's "intelligence sources and methods."

In its decision below, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit had interpreted the term "intelligence source" quite narrowly, laying down what the CIA contended was an unrealistic test for determining protectible source status. See FOIA Update, Fall 1983, at 6.

Flatly overruling the D.C. Circuit, the Supreme Court accepted the CIA's position that those who "provide . . . information related to the Agency's intelligence function" are entitled to statutory protection.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the Court took note of "the realities of intelligence work, which often involves seemingly innocuous sources as well as unsuspecting individuals who provide valuable intelligence information." In light of this, the Court had no difficulty recognizing the "wide-ranging authority" conferred upon the Director of Central Intelligence under "[t]he plain statutory language" in question.

The Sims case held unusual significance due to the CIA's decision years ago to declassify the particular information at issue in the case, pertaining to its controversial former MKULTRA drug research project. In a separate concurring opinion, Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr., agreed that the D.C. Circuit had erred, but objected to the broad use of Exemption 3 in lieu of Exemption 1.

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Updated August 13, 2014