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New York Times v. DOJ

Concerning the Department of Justice's Obligation to Disclose OLC Legal Opinions Under the FOIA

Top News

  • Federal Appeals Court Rules that Legal Policy Memos Can Be Withheld From the Public: The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled that the FBI may withhold a memo prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel concerning the law governing "exigent letter" requests to telephone companies for call records. The decision affirmed an earlier opinion that the memo was privileged advice, and exempt from disclosure under the Freedom information Act. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that the memo was "working law" and not simply advice from government lawyers. However, the Court of Appeals found that the FBI had not itself adopted the advice of government lawyers. In a different case where the Department of State followed the guidance of Justice Department lawyers, EPIC filed a "friend" of the court brief in support of the New York Times and the ACLU and argued for the release of opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel. For more information, see EPIC v. NSA: Cybersecurity Authority and EPIC: New York Times v. DOJ. (Jan. 3, 2014)
  • EPIC Seeks Documents on Government's Authority to Search Journalists' Email: EPIC has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, seeking documents explaining the DOJ's legal authority to search the electronic communications of reporters. Following news reports that the DOJ seized the telephone records of the Associated Press, EPIC's request seeks to discover the legal basis for the action as well as whether the DOJ could obtain the email or text messaging records of journalists. In 2005, EPIC filed the first FOIA request concerning the government's "warrantless wiretapping". EPIC eventually obtained emails and a memo (pdf) from a former high-level Justice Department official expressing doubt about the government's argument in favor of the legality of the program. EPIC also obtained internal messages (pdf) from the NSA's director to agency staff, defending the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping and discouraging employees from discussing the issue with the news media. For more information, see EPIC: Open Government, EPIC: New York Times v. DOJ. (May. 14, 2013)
  • EPIC Files Amicus Brief, Urges Disclosure of Secret Legal Memos: EPIC, joined by seven open government organizations, has filed a "friend of the court" brief urging a federal appeals court to order the government to disclose the legal authority for drone strikes. The case, New York Times v. Department of Justice, asks whether the administration is required, under the Freedom of Information Act, to disclose legally binding opinions from the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel. EPIC's brief argues that these opinions cannot be withheld under the FOIA. "By withholding these legal opinions, which direct the actions of the government and impact private parties, the Department is establishing secret law that is antithetical to democratic governance." For more information, see EPIC: New York Times v. DOJ and EPIC: Open Government. (Apr. 23, 2013)

Background

The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union both filed Freedom of Information Act requests with various federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, the CIA, and the Department of Defense, seeking documents related to the Executive Branch's "targeted killing program." Pursuant to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the federal government initiated a covert "targeted killing" program as part of its global war on terror. Under this program, the President has targeted and killed individuals that he deems have ties to terrorism. Some of these individuals have been American citizens. Targeted individuals have been killed by missile strikes from combat drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Anwar Al-Awlaki, a senior leader of Al-Qaeda, was killed by a drone strike in late 2011 in Yemen. Also killed with Al-Awlaki was Samir Khan. Later, on October 14, 2011, Al-Awlaki's underage son, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, was also killed in a drone strike in Yemen. All three men were American citizens.

The New York Times specifically requested DOJ Office of Legal Counsel("OLC") memoranda containing the legal justification for the Administration's conclusion that it is lawful to target for killing persons, including United States citizens, who are suspected of ties to terrorist groups. The ACLU requested a range of documents related to the legal basis for the targeted killing program, as well as the factual basis that supported the targeting of specific individuals, including Anwar and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki. The targeted killing program, its kill list, and its legal authorization are highly classified. The ability of the U.S. government to kill one of its own citizens, away from a battlefield, outside of exigent circumstances, and without any judicial process, is hotly contested. Various news investigations revealed the existence of a legal memo written by the OLC that explains why the federal government may engage in targeted killing.

Litigation in the District and Appellate Courts

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York upheld the Department of Justice's withholding of the legal memoranda. The Court said that the legal memos are classified and thus exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The Court also held that the memos were subject to the deliberative process privilege, stating that the memos were merely advisory opinions. The deliberative process privilege exempts materials from disclosure under FOIA if the materials are deliberative and predecisional. However, final opinions, binding rules, and "working law" do not fall within the privilege.

The New York Times and the ACLU appealed the District Court's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Times and ACLU argued that the District Court was incorrect in finding that the legal memos could be withheld due to these FOIA exemptions. First, the Times and ACLU argued that the legal memos were improperly classified. Pure legal analysis, once it is divorced from sensitive facts, does not meet the precise legal qualifications for classification, so the memos should never have been classified in the first place. Second, the Times and the ACLU argued that the deliberative process privilege does not apply because an OLC legal opinion is the working law of the Executive Branch.

EPIC's Amicus Curiae Brief

EPIC, along with seven other open government organizations, authored a "friend of the court" brief supporting The New York Times and ACLU. EPIC's brief walked through the history and legal authority of the Office of Legal Counsel to show how the OLC's legal opinions establish binding law for the Executive Branch. EPIC showed that OLC's current policies and past directors all agree that the Office is the authoritative legal arbiter of the Executive Branch, that its opinions are binding law, and that its formal written opinions should be disclosed to the public.

EPIC's brief explained that the classification and withholding of OLC legal analysis established "secret law" within the Executive Branch that undermined oversight and accountability, violates the requirements of the FOIA, and is has no place in a democratic system of republican governance. In addition, EPIC discussed how past instances of disclosure or withholding of OLC legal memoranda has shaped or stifled public debate of important issues.

EPIC's Interest in N.Y. Times v. DOJ

EPIC frequently engages in Freedom of Information Act litigation seeking documents related to federal government authority to conduct privacy-invasive programs. For more than eight years, EPIC has sought OLC legal opinions related to the warrantless wiretapping program initiated by President Bush after September 11th. In EPIC v. DOJ, the District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that certain OLC memoranda could be protected by the deliberative process privilege, but that the government had not sufficiently described the documents in question. EPIC continues to seek disclosure of the legal justification for the warrantless wiretapping program, and EPIC v. DOJ is one of our oldest ongoing FOIA cases.

Legal Documents

United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

Resources

Pages

Relevant Precedent

  • Federal Cases
    • NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S. 132 (1975)
    • Grand Cent. P'ship, Inc. v. Cuomo, 166 F.3d 473 (2d Cir. 1999)
    • Wilson v. CIA, 586 F.3d 171 (2d Cir. 2009)
    • Brennan Ctr. for Justice v. Dep't of Justice, 697 F.3d 184 (2d Cir. 2012)
    • EPIC v. DOJ, 584 F.Supp.2d 65 (D.D.C. 2008)
    • CREW v. Office of Admin., 249 F.R.D. 1 (D.D.C. 2008)

Relevant Law Review Articles, Reports, and Books

News Reports