Govt Appeals Court-Ordered Release of Classified Document

Government attorneys said yesterday that they would appeal an extraordinary judicial ruling that required the release of a classified document in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The document in question is a one-page position paper produced by the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) concerning the U.S. negotiating position in free trade negotiations.  It was classified Confidential and was not supposed to be disclosed before 2013.

But immediate disclosure of the document could not plausibly cause damage to the national security, said DC District Judge Richard W. Roberts in a February 29, 2012 opinion, and so its continued classification, he said, is not “logical.”  He ordered the government to release the document to the Center for International Environmental Law, which had requested it under FOIA.  (Court Says Agency Classification Decision is Not ‘Logical’, Secrecy News, March 2, 2012.)

This kind of independent review of the validity of classification decisions, which is something that judges normally refrain from doing, offers one way to curb galloping overclassification.

While the substance of the USTR document is likely to be of little general interest, the court’s willingness to disregard the document’s ill-founded classification and to require its disclosure seems like a dream come true to critics of classification policy.  If the decision serves as a precedent and a spur to a more broadly skeptical judicial approach to classification matters, so much the better.

But what may be a dream to some is a nightmare to others.  The bare possibility of such an emerging challenge to executive classification authority was evidently intolerable to the Obama Administration, which will now seek to overturn Judge Roberts’ ruling in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

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