Leopold v. CIA, No. 14-1056, 2016 WL 1411332 (D.D.C. Apr. 8, 2016) (Boasberg, J.)
Re: Request for records concerning interaction between Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffers and CIA
Disposition: Granting defendant's motion for summary judgment
- Procedural Requirements, Searching for Responsive Records: The court holds that "[p]laintiffs' objections, though numerous, are insufficient to defeat the CIA's showing that it carried out the search in a manner reasonably calculated to locate documents responsive to the initial FOIA request." The court relates that "the CIA asserts that its personnel conducted a reasonable search for responsive records, examining the files likely to contain responsive material." The court then addresses each of plaintiffs' objections to defendant's search. First, the court disagrees with plaintiffs' argument that "'the CIA interpreted portions of Plaintiffs' five-part request too narrowly.'" The court explains that "[t]he declaration [which plaintiffs use to support this argument], read in context, simply evinces [defendant's] attempt to provide a condensed summary . . . of a lengthy FOIA request." Additionally, "[t]o the extent Plaintiffs harbor any lingering misgivings about Defendant's intentions . . . the agency furnished a supplemental declaration to make clear that it did not narrow Plaintiffs' request." Second, regarding "[p]laintiffs['] attack [that] the agency's non-responsiveness determinations [were] insufficiently explained," the court finds that "[u]sing the 'guiding principle of reasonableness' to gauge the search's adequacy, . . . the agency's description of its document-by-document, commonsense approach to distinguishing responsive from non-responsive documents was proper and described in sufficient detail, particularly given the contrast between the narrow focus of the request and the breadth of certain search terms." Third, regarding plaintiffs' argument that defendant's "withholding [of duplicate records] was improper . . . because their FOIA request specifically asked for 'duplicate' records[,]" the court finds that "[w]hile [it] does not mean that where there are similar but not identical documents, the government may choose which one to produce, 'it would be illogical and wasteful to require an agency to produce multiple copies of the exact same document.'" Fourth, regarding plaintiffs' arguments concerning the adequacy of defendant's descriptions of its search, the court first finds that defendant's "remedied any . . . deficiency" in its description of search personnel by "generally identif[ying] the searching parties and describ[ing], as Plaintiffs requested, the 'nature of the personnel' carrying out the search." Also, regarding plaintiffs' arguments surrounding defendant's descriptions of the records systems searched, the court finds that "[p]laintiffs have not offered any explanation as to why the specific Privacy Act systems of records identified in their request constitute leads that, on their face, should have been pursued, particularly given the agency's assertion that it searched the relevant offices that managed those systems." "Requesters cannot simply demand that an agency carry out the search in the manner they wish by 'mere fiat.'" "Critical here, too, is that the agency has provided a reasonable explanation for why those purported leads would not assist it in executing its search." Additionally, the court finds that "[p]laintiffs are not entitled to summary judgment merely because they might have preferred that the agency use one search term over another." The court also relates that "[p]laintiffs assert that the agency fails to adequately describe how each record system's search function operates, suggesting that they need more detail to determine the adequacy of the search[,]" but finds that "[p]laintiffs point to no case . . . that demands, as a matter of course, this degree of specificity from an agency declarant." Fifth, regarding plaintiffs' arguments about potential missing documents, the court finds that "'a search is not unreasonable simply because it fails to produce all relevant material[.]'" Last, regarding plaintiffs' argument that defendant did not search all offices which would have responsive records, specifically that because "'[r]ecords released to Plaintiffs in this case contain markings indicating that the records were distributed to one or more of these offices [that plaintiffs' argue should be searched,]'" the court finds that "[l]eaving aside the question of 'markings' for a moment, the CIA has, as a general matter, amply demonstrated that the scope of its search was reasonably calculated to locate responsive material." The court also finds that defendant did search many of the offices that plaintiffs claim were not searched and that "[defendant's] explanation [is] sufficient to justify the CIA's decision not to search those other offices, particularly given that the letter is the only evidence Plaintiffs offer to suggest that the search was too narrow as to the specific offices searched."