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DiFi and the Silly Season of Senate Committee Music Chairs

A little over an hour ago, there was some rather notable news tweeted out by CNN:

Intel cte’s @SenFeinstein will give up the chair and move to Judiciary, source tells @CapitolHillCNN. @SenatorReid to announce today

I have talked to both sources at both the Senate Judiciary Committee and Personnel offices and have yet to hear a denial. This is, then, significant news as to a complete reshuffling of key Majority Senate Leadership assuming it continues to bear out.

First off, a tenured Senator like Feinstein does not leave a high value Committee Chairmanship without another, or something higher, on the offer. CNN said she it is to “move to Judiciary”. But DiFi has long been a member of the SJC, that can only portend she will then become Chairman of Judiciary.

Ryan Grim at Huffington Post has also picked up this shuffle, and beat me to the punch by a few minutes:

If Feinstein does take over leadership of the Judiciary Committee, that could ease the passage in the Senate of a renewed assault weapons ban, which was passed under President Bill Clinton in 1994 but expired in 2004. The shooting rampage on Friday in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were murdered by a gunman with a military-style assault weapon and high-capacity magazines, has renewed calls for stricter gun control legislation.

On Tuesday, speaking in the Capitol before the party’s weekly caucus lunch, Feinstein told reporters who had asked her whether she will jump to Judiciary, “Keep tuned. I think it is [going to become open], and I think it’ll happen.”

On Monday, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) who was the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, passed away at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Now that Inouye’s post is empty, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is rumored to be looking at taking over Appropriations — in turn opening up the leadership slot at Judiciary. Feinstein could then move from her current spot as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee to chair Judiciary.

That is good, fast reporting and coincides with what I can discern. And Appropriations Chair is a long time traditional home for the Senate Pro-Tem, which Pat Leahy became with yesterday’s passing of Inouye.

So, what about SSCI? Next in line would, by seniority, be Jay Rockefeller. But, as Mother Jones’ Nick Baumann pointed out, Rockefeller gave up leadership at Intel nearly three years ago to take over the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee helm, and there is no reason to think he would double back. That gave a brief glimmer of hope that Ron Wyden might get the nod at SSCI, but HuffPo’s Grim, in a tweet, thinks he is more likely to take over the helm of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for the outgoing Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who did not seek reelection. That would mean the next senior Democrat on SSCI as Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

Now, if I were Wyden, I would want the SSCI job over Energy. It is likely most progressives would like him there as well, which is why the smart money likely says Reid talks him into the Energy Chair.

So, we are into the Congressional equivalent of Formula One silly season; i.e. the end of the year shuffling of drivers before the season is really over. The one real wildcard here is Wyden.

Cornyn Called Targeted Killing a “Program,” Too

I noted yesterday that the government, in its cynical attempt to play dumb about what the ACLU and NYT were FOIAing in their Anwar al-Awlaki memo lawsuits, had exhibited the same problems with basic definitions as Clinton had over the definition of “is.”

Plaintiffs do not define, and it is otherwise unclear from their response, what is meant by “targeted killing program.”

Interestingly, Tom Junod revealed that one of his sources got squeamish about his use of the word “program.”

But there is someone else who has received at least a cursory white paper introduction to the Administration’s targeted killing of American citizens who is on the record calling it a program: John Cornyn.

In his efforts (thwarted by all the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee) to pass an amendment requiring the Administration to share all legal analysis on its authority to engaging in targeting killings of Americans overseas, he said this:

Cornyn: This is an amendment I alluded to earlier which would require the Executive Branch to share with Congress the legal basis for their decision to engage in a program of targeted killings, including apparently American citizens abroad. This is, just to be clear, not asking about the program per se, just asking about the legal rationale. I think all of us are troubled at least initially, without further explanation, about the use of targeted killings that involve American citizens. We all understand that even American citizens may become traitors and declare war, in essence, against their own country. But there has to be a rationale for this in law. And I think this is about transparency, this is about accountability, and it’s also important for Congress–the only branch that can actually legislate–if there are aspects of this legal argument or rationale which Congress would choose to hold hearings on, conduct appropriate oversight, or legislate on, this is the kind of information that Congress is entitled to as part of our Constitutional role. I know we can all agree that the decision to use this program bears heavily on core national values. [my emphasis]

Elsewhere in the debate (I’ve included my own transcription of it below), Pat Leahy reveals the Administration provided a white paper on the program (though Cornyn suggests–and Leahy seems to confirm–that didn’t include the legal analysis). Which suggests Cornyn is working from the presentation the Administration gave to Congressional overseers of DOJ.

And based on that presentation, Cornyn seems to believe it’s a program.

My transcript of this part of the hearing–which begins around 98:32–is below the line. Read more

The Administration Has Not Responded to Over 10 Congressional Requests for Targeted Killing Memo

Back in September 2010, when the Administration successfully argued that whether or not the government had the authority to kill Anwar al-Awlaki was a matter for the Executive and Congressional Branches to decide, it claimed Congress served as a check on that power.

The nonjusticiability of the plaintiff’s claims in this Court “does not leave the executive power unbounded.” Schneider, 412 F.3d at 200. “The political branches effectively exercise such checks and balances on each other in the area of political questions[,]” and “[i]f the executive in fact has exceeded his appropriate role in the constitutional scheme, Congress enjoys a broad range of authorities with which to exercise restraint and balance.” Id. Accordingly, “the allocation of political questions to the political branches is not inconsistent with our constitutional tradition of limited government and balance of powers.” Id.

The Administration’s behavior in the interim period has proven those assurances to be utterly false. Congress has asked the Administration on more than 10 separate occasions for the OLC memo authorizing the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki (many of these 10 documented requests refer to earlier requests, and Pat Leahy sent President Obama a letter that his office could not share).

And yet here we are, 22 months after the Administration assured Judge John Bates that Congress exercised some kind of check on the Executive, at least 17 months after members of Congress first started asking for the legal analysis, and the Administration has not responded to those requests.


Here are the requests.

February 2011: Ron Wyden asks the Director of National Intelligence for the legal analysis behind the targeted killing program. (1)

April 2011: Ron Wyden calls Eric Holder to ask for legal analysis on targeted killing. (2)

May 2011: DOJ responds to Wyden’s request, yet doesn’t answer key questions.

May 18-20, 2011: DOJ (including Office of Legislative Affairs) discusses “draft legal analysis regarding the application of domestic and international law to the use of lethal force in a foreign country against U.S. citizens” (this may be the DOJ response to Ron Wyden).

October 5, 2011: Chuck Grassley sends Eric Holder a letter requesting the OLC memo by October 27, 2011. (3)

November 8, 2011: Pat Leahy complains about past Administration refusal to share targeted killing OLC memo. (4)

February 8, 2012: Ron Wyden follows up on his earlier requests for information on the targeted killing memo with Eric Holder. (5)

March 7, 2012: Tom Graves (R-GA) asks Robert Mueller whether Eric Holder’s criteria for the targeted killing of Americans applies in the US; Mueller replies he’d have to ask DOJ. Per his office today, DOJ has not yet provided Graves with an answer. (6)

March 8, 2012: Pat Leahy renews his request for the OLC memo at DOJ appropriations hearing. (7)

June 7, 2012: After Jerry Nadler requests the memo, Eric Holder commits to providing the House Judiciary a briefing–but not the OLC memo–within a month. (8)

June 12, 2012: Pat Leahy renews his request for the OLC memo at DOJ oversight hearing. (9)

June 27, 2012: In Questions for the Record following a June 7 hearing, Jerry Nadler notes that DOJ has sought dismissal of court challenges to targeted killing by claiming “the appropriate check on executive branch conduct here is the Congress and that information is being shared with Congress to make that check a meaningful one,” but “we have yet to get any response” to “several requests” for the OLC memo authorizing targeted killing. He also renews his request for the briefing Holder had promised. (10)

July 19, 2012: Both Pat Leahy and Chuck Grassley complain about past unanswered requests for OLC memo. (Grassley prepared an amendment as well, but withdrew it in favor of Cornyn’s.) Leahy (but not Grassley) votes to table John Cornyn amendment to require Administration to release the memo.

July 24, 2012: SSCI passes Intelligence Authorization that requires DOJ to make all post-9/11 OLC memos available to the Senate Intelligence Committee, albeit with two big loopholes.

FAA Extension: The Data Gaps about Our Data Collection

As I noted the other day, part of the point of the language Ron Wyden got declassified the other day seemed to be to call out a misrepresentation in Dianne Feinstein’s Additional Views in the Senate Intelligence Report on the extension of the FISA Amendments Act. DiFi had claimed that “the FISA Court … has repeatedly held that collection carried out pursuant to the Section 702 minimization procedures used by the government is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” She neglected to mention that, “on at least one occasion the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court held that some collection carried out pursuant to the Section 702 minimization procedures used by the government was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

But since Wyden pointed back to that language, I wanted to note something else in the paragraph in which DiFi’s misleading claim appears: She suggests there is substantial reporting on the program.

This oversight has included the receipt and examination of over eight assessments and reviews per year concerning the implementation of FAA surveillance authorities, which by law are required to be prepared by the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence, the heads of various elements of the intelligence community, and the Inspectors General associated with those elements. In addition, the Committee has received and scrutinized un- redacted copies of every classified opinion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) containing a significant construction or interpretation of the law, as well as the pleadings submitted by the Executive Branch to the FISA Court relating to such opinions.

[snip]

Third, the numerous reporting requirements outlined above provide the Committee with extensive visibility into the application of these minimization procedures and enable the Committee to evaluate the extent to which these procedures are effective in protecting the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. persons. [my emphasis]

But in her sentence claiming the FISA Court keeps approving the program, she reveals that the Court is not getting all those reports.

Notably, the FISA Court, which receives many of the same reports available to the Committee, has repeatedly held that collection carried out pursuant to the Section 702 minimization procedures used by the government is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

[my emphasis]

The Court receives “many” of the same reports. Which suggests it doesn’t see all of them.

That comment is all the more interesting because of something Pat Leahy said at least week’s Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up of the bill.

Congress has been provided with information related to the implementation of the FISA Amendments Act, along with related documents from the FISA Court. Based on my review of this information, and after a series of classified briefings, I do not believe that there is any evidence that the law has been abused, or that the communications of U.S. persons are being intentionally targeted.

[snip]

My views about the implementation of these surveillance authorities are based on the information we have available now – but there is more that we need to know. For example, important compliance reviews have not yet been completed by the Inspectors General of the Department of Justice or the NSA. Read more

Targeted Killings: When John Cornyn Makes Better Sense than Democrats …

Things got a little crazy when the Senate Judiciary Committee FISA Amendment Markup turned to targeted killing.

John Cornyn used the opportunity of this must-pass intelligence bill to propose an amendment to require the Administration to share its authorization for targeting killing. Cornyn rather modestly said that “I think all of troubled w/o further explanation” for the authority. [All quotes in this post are my inexact transcription] Chuck Grassley went further, saying something to the effect of “We [the Administration] has got a license to kill, and we don’t know about that license and we won’t get it until we legislate it.”

But Democrats prevented Cornyn and Grassley from attaching legislation mandating the Administration share the authorization with Congress.

Now, Cornyn claimed (incorrectly, given his inaction on Bush’s torture and wiretapping) that he wasn’t pushing for legislation on this just because the President is a Democrat; he would have done so if the President were a Republican too. To which Dick Durbin reminded him of all the times he refused to back legislation requiring oversight and transparency under Bush.

Which was Dick Durbin’s opportunity to call for writing a letter on this issue rather than legislating. Pat Leahy suggested he could just use his letter, which was already sent and ignored. Then Grassley reminded he has sent a letter on this subject too, and been ignored.

It was a bunch of Senators recounting the number of letters demanding oversight into the President’s unchecked authority to kill, including American citizens, only to be blown off. America, fuck yeah!

Again, John Cornyn came off sounding like the adult. “We’re not mere supplicants of the Executive Branch. It is insufficient to say, “Pretty please, Mr President, please tell us about the legal authorization.”

Nevertheless, that didn’t prevent Dianne Feinstein from promising that the Senate Intelligence Committee would include language about this in their authorization, and insisting that they let SSCI, not SJC, impose requirements. She suggested (though did not make explicit) that such a requirement belongs in SSCI because targeted killing is a covert program. Which is how the entire effort got tabled, leaving everyone to write more letters.

Cornyn had one more measure, requiring the President provide notice to the Gang of Eight. Dianne Feinstein, as she has repeatedly, assured her colleagues that she and Saxby Chambliss provide all the oversight on this front that is needed. To which Cornyn asked, “Is notice of targeted killing given before or after killing?” DiFi responded, “Sometimes before, sometimes during, sometimes just after.” Cornyn replied, “I don’t think Congress should delegate all authority to one or two members. Make sure not just you, but bicameral gang of eight.”

Curiously, DiFI had no response to that, leaving the impression that the Obama Administration, even on the matter of targeted killing of US citizens, has continued the Bush Administration violation of the National Security Act by briefing just the Gang of Four, not the Gang of Eight (which would add Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell to the Intelligence Committee heads being briefed).

But again, Democrats voted to table that amendment on a party line vote.

This is a problem. Not only is it taking legislation to even get the Senate Intelligence Committee adequately briefed on this topic, but Democrats are using partisan obstruction to prevent the Judiciary Committee from learning enough to assess for themselves whether the targeted killing of a US citizen violates the Constitution.

Sheldon Whitehouse Confirms FISA Amendments Act Permits Unwarranted Access to US Person Content

In the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup of the FISA Amendments Act, Mike Lee, Dick Durbin, and Chris Chris Coons just tried, unsuccessfully, to require the government to get a warrant before it searched US person communications collected via the targeting of non-US person under the FISA Amendments Act. It was, as Dianne Feinstein said, not dissimilar from an amendment Ron Wyden and Mark Udall had tried to pass when FAA was marked up before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The debate revealed new confirmation that the government is wiretapping American citizens in the guise of foreign surveillance.

DiFi argued that the amendment would have impeded the government to pursue Nidal Hassan by delaying the time when they could have reviewed his communication (presumably with Anwar al-Awlaki). Of course, the amendment included an emergency provision that would have permitted such a search after the effect.

More telling, though, was Whitehouse’s response. He referred back to his time using warrants as a US Attorney, and said that requiring a warrant to access the US person communication would “kill this program,” and that to think warrants “fundamentally misapprehends the way in which this program operates.”

Now, I’d be more sympathetic to Whitehouse here if, back when this bill was originally argued, his amendments requiring FISC oversight of minimization after the fact had passed. They didn’t. To make things worse, though Leahy repeatedly talked about Inspector General reporting overdue on this program, Congress is not going to wait for these reports before they extend the program for another three years, at least. So Whitehouse’s assurances that we can trust minimization to protect US person privacy seems badly misplaced.

In any case, this represents an admission, as strong as any we’ve seen, that this program is entirely about collecting the US person communication of those who communicate with people (DiFi used the term “person of interest,” which I had not heard before) overseas.

Update: Updated to explain this came in a markup hearing. Thanks to Peterr for pointing out my oversight on that point.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Hasn’t Seen the Targeted Killing Memo Either

I guess it should be no surprise that Pat Leahy, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hasn’t seen the memo authorizing the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. After all, if the full Senate Intelligence Committee–which is supposed to exercise oversight over covert operations like that assassination–hasn’t seen the memo, then it’d be unlikely the Administration would share it with Leahy, much less the full committee.

But Charlie Savage confirms that Leahy has not seen it (while also catching Eric Holder giving a response far more comprehensive than the Glomar response the NYT and ACLU have received in FOIA requests).

For months, the Obama administration has refused to confirm or deny the existence of a Justice Department memorandum that approved the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a drone strike in Yemen last September.

But in an exchange at a budget hearing on Thursday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. came close to implicitly conceding that there is indeed such a memo, which was written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Mr. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, brought up a conversation he said he and Mr. Holder had earlier this week about a speech on “drones and targeting of U.S. citizens” that the attorney general delivered on Monday.

“I still want to see the Office of Legal Counsel memorandum and I would urge you to keep working on that,” Mr. Leahy said to Mr. Holder. “I realize that’s a matter of some debate within the administration but …”

The senator then paused, smiled and laughed. Mr. Holder responded by nodding and said, chuckling, “That would be true.”

Say, Pat?

You were in an Appropriations Committee hearing.

One way–the only proven way–of forcing an Administration to act like it’s still a democracy is to withhold funds. Attach rules like, “DOJ may not authorize the targeted killing of US citizens unless it has shared the legal argument with its oversight committees.” Or, “DOJ may not authorize the targeted killing of US citizens without due process including judicial review.”

Unless you actually make the Administration act like they’re in a democracy, we’re all just pretending. And an Appropriations meeting is the perfect time to do such things.

Senate Judiciary Committee: Closing the Barn Door after the Barn’s Been Foreclosed

Sometime this week, the long-awaited terms for the foreclosure settlement will be released, giving banks immunity for much of the fraud and forgery they committed in the course of taking homeowners’ houses.

Which makes the timing of this hearing the Senate Judiciary Committee just announced beyond absurd.

“Examining Lending Discrimination Practices and Foreclosure Abuses”

Senate Judiciary Committee
Full Committee

DATE: March 7, 2012

A better time for such a hearing might have been December 2010, just as the full extent of the robosigning was being exposed. In fact, that’s the second-to-last hearing John Conyers hadbefore Dems lost their House majority. Since that time, he has been imploring the Administration and the Attorneys General to do something substantive about foreclosure problems, even asking MI’s AG not to sign onto the settlement.

But next week!?!?! Just as the settlement will be enacted, making many of these issues (though reportedly not civil rights issues) moot?!?! Really?!?!

I mean, if the Judiciary Committee is going to hold a hearing in the immediate future, it’d be far better to hold a hearing considering what impact it will have on justice in this country to assign a $2,000 price tag to fabricating forged documents or engaging in other fraudulent activities before a court. Will judges ever be able to trust corporations in their courtrooms again? Will private citizens have access to this $2,000 Get Out of Jail Free card, or only Too Big to Fail institutions?

Alternately, act like the bankster-owned body the Senate is, and simply call a hearing to discuss whether having pension funds pay to buy immunity for the banks hurts corporations.

And then there’s the witness list: right now, just Civil Rights Division head Thomas Perez will testify. I’m all in favor of Thomas Perez in most any role–his work at Civil Rights has easily been the best part of DOJ under Obama. But aren’t there other people who might better address foreclosure abuses, even if the hearing just focuses on lending discrimination?

I mean, I’m all in favor of someone finally conducting oversight over the fraud going on in this country. But this hearing couldn’t be more badly timed.

 

New Anthrax Scare: This Time Leahy’s Letter Tests Negative

With the war drums on Iran beating loudly, homeland security theater is ratcheting up yet another level as a wave of letters containing a powdery substance have been mailed again to media and political figures. This time, unlike the October-November 2001 episode, all letters tested so far have been negative for anthrax or other harmful substances, but the mailer has threatened that ten percent of the large number of letters mailed will be deadly. Most notable in this current series is that a letter was received at the Burlington, Vermont office of Senator Patrick Leahy. Recall that Senator Leahy was one of those targeted with the most deadly version of the anthrax mailed in 2001.

Details on this latest episode were first reported by Reuters on Wednesday:

Several members of the Congress received mail threatening a biological attack and containing a suspicious powder later found to be harmless as law enforcement officials warned on Wednesday that more letters could be on their way.

A number of media organizations and TV shows, including the New York Times and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, received mail postmarked Oregon warning that letters had been sent to the Washington or local offices of all 100 U.S. senators and that 10 contained a deadly pathogen, a law enforcement source said.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, received a letter containing a powdery substance at one of his offices in his home state of Ohio, a Republican aide said, adding that the powder was harmless.

/snip/

In a notice to Senate staffers titled “Urgent: Suspicious Mail Alert,” [Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance] Gainer warned that the sender of the letters had “indicated that additional letters containing a powdery substance will be arriving at more Senate offices and that some of these letters may contain actual harmful material.”

More details have since come out:

The letters make vague complaints about too much money in politics and had a Portland, Oregon return address from an organization listed as “The MIB, LLC,” a law enforcement official told CBS News.

In addition to the letters to the lawmakers, officials said television comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert received letters mentioning the letters to senators.

The author told the comedians he would send letters to all 100 senators and ten percent of them would contain “lethal pathogens,” an official told CBS News.

The author wanted an end to corporate money and lobbying, an end to “corporate personhood,” and called for a new constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution.

The author also told the comedians he would tell the senators they are “working for the wrong side” and there is a ten percent chance they have been exposed to a lethal pathogen. The author also said he “randomized” which letters would contain the pathogen and even he did not know who would get which letter.

Because of the advance notice, the letter received at Leahy’s office was spotted and the authorities were called: Read more

DOJ Admits It Has Been “Lying” for 24 Years; Journalists Applaud

I’m sort of mystified by yesterday’s reporting on the DOJ letter to Chuck Grassley and Pat Leahy regarding FOIA. Basically, the letter announced that DOJ has been “lying” on FOIA responses for 24 years, and that DOJ will only change its approach if it finds a good alternative. And yet report after report said DOJ had decided to drop their “new” approach to FOIA (TPM is the sole exception I saw, though the article’s title appears to reflect an earlier mistaken version).

As a reminder, the in question instructed FOIA respondents to respond to a FOIA request on ongoing investigations, informants, and classified foreign intelligence information as if the information didn’t exist.

(2) When a component applies an exclusion to exclude records from the requirements of the FOIA pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 552(c), the component utilizing the exclusion will respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist. This response should not differ in wording from any other response given by the component.

The letter everyone is celebrating says this about DOJ’s FOIA practice over the last 24 years.

Since 1987, the Department has handled records excluded under [FOIA’s Section 552(c)] according to guidance issued by Attorney General Meese. The Meese Guidelines provided, among other things, that where the only records responsive to a request were excluded from FOIA by statute, “a requester can properly be advised in such a situation that ‘there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request,'” and that agencies must ensure that its FOIA responses to requests that involve exclusions and those that do not involve exclusions “are consistent throughout, so that no telling inferences can be drawn by requesters.” The logic is simple: When a citizen makes a request pursuant to FOIA, either implicit or explicit in the request is that it seeks records that are subject to the FOIA: where the only records that exist are not subject to the FOIA, the statement that “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request is wholly accurate. These practices laid out in Attorney General Meese’s memo have governed Department practice for more than 20 years.[my emphasis]

This paragraph makes it clear that the practice “proposed” in the “new” rule is actually the practice DOJ has followed for 24 years.

Here’s the language from the Meese Guidelines, which makes it clear DOJ has not been using Glomar’s “We can neither confirm nor deny” language for these exclusions–as some of the reports on this yesterday claimed–but has instead been denying any records exist.

In addition to expanding the protective scope of the FOIA’s principal law enforcement exemptions, the FOIA Reform Act creates an entirely new mechanism for protecting certain especially sensitive law enforcement matters, under new subsection (c) of the FOIA. These three new special protection provisions, referred to as record “exclusions,” now expressly authorize federal law enforcement agencies, for certain especially sensitive records under certain specified circumstances, to “treat the records as not subject to the requirements of [the FOIA].” 5 U.S.C. � 552(c)(1), (c)(2), (c)(3), as enacted by Pub. L. No. 99-570, � 1802 (1986). In other words, an agency applying an exclusion in response to a FOIA request will respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist.

[snip]

To be sure, the protection afforded through “Glomarization” can adequately shield sensitive abstract facts in certain categorically defined situations. However, the “Glomarization” principle, by its nature, operates necessarily on the basis of (and openly connected with) specified FOIA exemptions, and it is limited in such a way as to mask only an abstract fact related to a defined record category. See FOIA Update, Spring 1983, at 5; see, e.g., FOIA Update, Spring 1986, at 2. Thus, mere “Glomarization” simply is inadequate to guard against the harm caused by the very invocation of a particular exemption, nor is it capable of being applied realistically where the “category” of threatening requests can be as broad as, in effect, “all FOIA requests seeking records on named persons or entities.” It is precisely because “Glomarization” inadequately protects against the particular harms in question that the more delicate exclusion mechanism, which affords a higher level of protection, sometimes must be employed.(47)

By the same token, the utilization of the exclusion mechanism requires extremely careful attention on the part of agency personnel, lest it be undermined, even indirectly, by the form or substance of an agency’s actions. Agencies should pay particular attention to the phrasing of their FOIA-response communications in light of the new exclusions. Where an exclusion is employed, the agency is legally empowered to “treat” the excluded records as not subject to the FOIA at all. Accordingly, a requester can properly be advised in such a situation that “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request.” Such phrasing — as opposed to any more detailed statement that, for example, any records specified in a particular request “could not be located” — most rationally and fairly implements an exclusion’s effect.

The DOJ letter, combined with the Meese Guidelines, makes it clear: DOJ has been responding for FOIAs throughout that period with the misleading language. There is nothing “new” about the practice whatsoever.

DOJ’s prior use of this practice should be clear from the history of this rule–which was basically rushed through as Judge Cormac Carney’s ruling made it clear that the FBI had used this practice in a response to CAIR. Contrary to DOJ’s claim that it tried to push through this rule out of some concern for transparency, they only drafted it once it became clear their long-standing practice would be exposed in the Carney ruling.

And as I noted yesterday, while DOJ has dropped the language formalizing this from the rule…

We believe that Section 16.6(f)(2) of the proposed regulations falls short by those measures, and we will not include that provision when the Department issues final regulations.

…it has not promised to drop the practice. On the contrary, it says it will only change the practice–the practice it has used for the last 24 years–if it can find something that works as well.

Having now received a number of comments on the Department’s proposed regulations in this area, the Department is actively considering those comments and is reexamining whether there are other approaches to applying exclusions that protect the vital law enforcement and national security concerns that motivated Congress to exclude certain records from the FOIA and do so in the most transparent manner possible.

[snip]

That reopened comment period has recently concluded, and the Department is now in the process of reviewing those submissions. We are also taking a fresh look internally to see if there are other options available to implement Section 552(e)’s requirements in a manner that preserves the integrity of the sensitive law enforcement records at stake while preserving our continued commitment to being as transparent about that process as possible. [my emphasis]

And why should it drop the practice? It doesn’t need a rule to authorize it, it already has authority in the FOIA amendment passed in 1986, which the 9th Circuit referenced in its opinion on the Carney ruling just this spring with no complaint.

In addition, Congress added section 552(c) to the FOIA in 1986 to allow an agency to “treat the records as not subject to the [FOIA] requirements” in three specific categories involving: (1) ongoing criminal investigations; (2) informant identities; and (3) classified foreign intelligence or international terrorism information. 5 U.S.C. § 552(c) (1)-(c)(3)4; see Benavides v. Drug Enforcement Admin., 968 F.2d 1243, 1246-47 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (discussing the legislative history of the “three exclusions of § 552(c)”). Only subsection (c)(3) deals with classified information, while subsections (c)(1) and (c)(2) apply to law enforcement records. Therefore, plaintiffs’ contention that only classified information can be withheld under the FOIA is belied by the statute.

The 9th Circuit was not asked to review the constitutionality of this practice. But it certainly showed no discomfort with it. If the law endorses this practice and Appeals Courts have found no problem with it, what are the chances, really, that DOJ will change it substantially?

All yesterday’s letter did was announce that DOJ will once again not explicitly describe how it is applying exclusions–it will return to the practice it has followed for 24 years. Sure, it may find a new way to handle exclusions. But all we have now is a promise that it is considering doing so.