Why Is DOJ Deliberately Hiding Information Responsive to ACLU’s Anwar al-Awlaki FOIA?

As part of its strategy to not respond to the Anwar al-Awlaki FOIAs, the government seems to have decided to bury the NYT and ACLU under declarations. It submitted declarations and exhibits from 3 departments in DOJ, CIA, DOD, and DIA. Each attempts to appear helpful while (usually) blathering on at length but in no detail about why the President’s authority to kill an American citizen must remain hidden.

That said, the declarations can be distinguished by how convincing (or not) are their claims to have searched for relevant documents. In particular, DOJ Office of Information Policy was patently unresponsive, probably to hide the intelligence DOJ has on Anwar al-Awlaki (and possibly Samir Khan).

DOJ OLC presented by far the most convincing evidence of a real search. As described by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Bies, the department conducted searches for the following terms: target! kill!, drones, assassinat!, extrajudicial killing, UAV, unmanned, awlaki, aulaqi, lethal force, lethal operation.

DOD primarily searched legal officers. While Lieutenant General Robert Neller didn’t provide a full list of search terms used, he claimed the search “included relevant key words,” including “Citizen,” “AG Speech,” “al-Awlaki,” and “Samir Khan.” While Neller says DOD used “multiple spellings” of al-Awlaki, it’s not clear whether they only searched hyphenated names. And there are some terms clearly missing–such as anything to do with targeted killing. And “citizen”? Really?!?!?

CIA, meanwhile, had this to say about their search:

In light of these recent speeches and the official disclosures contained therein, the CIA decided to conduct a reasonable search for records responsive to the ACLU’s request. Based on that search, it has determined that it can now publicly acknowledge that it possesses records responsive to the ACLU’s FOIA request.

The DOJ response provides this nonsensical excuse for why CIA can’t reveal how it searched for relevant documents.

Although the CIA acknowledges its possession of some records responsive to the FOIA 6 requests, information concerning the depth and breadth of that interest, including the number of documents, is classified. See infra Point II; Bennett Decl. ¶¶ 27-28. We therefore do not describe the CIA’s search on the public record; it is described in the Classified Declaration of John Bennett.

Given the CIA’s well-documented history of not searching where they know the most interesting documents are, I think it safe to assume the search was completely negligent. But I find it mighty interesting they didn’t even tell us what their search consisted of–the better to avoid contempt proceedings in the future, I guess.

Nevertheless, I think the least defensible search comes from Deputy Chief of the Initial Request Staff at Office of Information Policy Joseph Hibbard. OIP conducted the search in offices of top DOJ officials like the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, and so on. Their search terms were: “targeted killings,” “kill lists,” “lethal operation,” “lethal force,” “al-Aulaqi” and “target,” “al-Awlaki” and “target,” “Samir Khan” and “target,” and “Abdulrahman” and “target.” Read more