Skip to main content

Ullah v. CIA, No. 18-2785, 2020 WL 248937 (D.D.C. Jan. 16, 2020) (Boasberg, J.)


Ullah v. CIA, No. 18-2785, 2020 WL 248937 (D.D.C. Jan. 16, 2020) (Boasberg, J.)

Re:  Request for records concerning remains of CIA detainee

Disposition:  Granting defendant's motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 1:  The court holds that "Defendant has therefore carried its burden of establishing that Exemption 1 protects the relevant withholdings."  The court first notes that "Plaintiffs challenge only the CIA's substantive showing."  "In particular, they principally question whether the release of the withheld information 'could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.'"  The court then "find[s] that the Government has satisfied its burden of showing that the withheld information is properly classified under E.O. 13526's substantive criteria."  "As a threshold matter, [the court finds that] this Circuit's FOIA caselaw cautions strongly against second-guessing the Government's discretionary decisions in matters of national security."  "This is not to suggest that Exemption 1 embodies an anti-disclosure talisman that the Government can wield whenever it so desires."  "Instead, the Court bases its conclusion on a variety of specific factors beyond the sensitive nature of the records at issue: the explanation provided by [defendant], the context supplied by the unredacted records, and the Court's own in camera review of the Government's withholdings."  "All told, the CIA's 'logical' assessment is not 'called into question by contradictory evidence in the record or by evidence of agency bad faith.'"  "First, contrary to Plaintiffs' contention, [defendant's] declaration is not excessively abstract or vague given the context."  "[Defendant] instead offers a 'logical connection' between disclosure of the redacted information and potential consequent harm to national security."  "Additionally, even if Plaintiffs are correct that some of the redacted information has already entered into the public domain, this Court has previously embraced 'the intuitive proposition that official disclosure of information already in the public realm can nevertheless affect national security.'"  "Plaintiffs are therefore not in the dark regarding the circumstances surrounding [the detainee's] death, even as they understandably continue to seek more information on that subject."  "Finally, the propriety of the CIA's invocation of Exemption 1 has been confirmed by the Court's in camera review of the contested withholdings."  "Ultimately, the reason Plaintiffs continue to press onward is precisely why they cannot prevail."  "They have access to the broad strokes of a grisly portrait of [the detainee's] death but seek the fine contours:  more specific information as to the location of his remains and the process surrounding their disposal."  "Yet disclosing those details would officially acknowledge the specifics of an undisclosed CIA operation, the geographic position of a CIA facility, and the identities of any involved foreign partners."
  • Exemption 3:  The court notes that "[m]uch of the above discussion regarding the deference granted to an agency in the national-security context remains relevant here, but Exemption 3, in fact, provides a lower hurdle for Defendant to surmount than does Exemption 1."  The court also notes that "most of the Government's withholdings for which it claims Exemption 3 overlap with its invocations of Exemption 1, and the Court therefore need not regurgitate the analysis supplied above."  "As to the rare redactions that the CIA justifies under only Exemption 3 (and only then via the ["National Security Act of 1947, which requires the Director of National Intelligence to 'protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure,'" the only portion of the Exemption 3 withholdings that plaintiff s challenge]), the Court's in camera review has confirmed that Defendant has carried its minimal burden of showing that they are exempt from disclosure."  "This material, it bears mentioning, does not encompass any substantive information."  "Instead, it consists of labels, names of files, classified markings, and categories of restrictions on the handling of the material."  "Put differently, it is the sort of 'internal organizational information' that Courts have found to fall within Exemption 3's protective umbrella."
  • Procedural Requirements, "Reasonably Segregable" Obligation:  "The Court concludes that there are no segregability issues in this case."  "The Government has released a fair bit of information about [the detainee's] captivity and death, and the Court's own line-by-line in camera review suffices to persuade it that the non-exempt portions of the withheld and redacted documents 'are inextricably intertwined with exempt portions' and need not be further segregated."
Court Decision Topic(s)
Procedural Requirements, “Reasonably Segregable” Obligation
Exemption 3
Exemption 1
District Court opinions
Updated March 4, 2020