FOIA Case: Who are you calling a low-ranking government official?

Via WaPo v. SIGAR (Civil Action No. 18-2622 (ABJ)
On March 23, 2017, Craig Whitlock, a reporter from plaintiff Washington Post Company (the “Post”), submitted a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (“SIGAR”), the federal agency charged with auditing and supervising the U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Plaintiff sought records relating to SIGAR’s Lessons Learned Program (“LLP”), specifically the “full, unedited transcripts and complete audio recordings of all interviews conducted for the Lessons Learned program, regardless of whether they were labeled as ‘on the record,’ or if the interviewee was granted anonymity, or if they were cited in a particular report or not.”
Plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit on November 14, 2018, and by June of 2019, SIGAR had processed the FOIA request and produced hundreds of responsive records. But it redacted some material and declined to produce other documents in full under various FOIA exemptions, and the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The Court granted both motions in part and denied both in part, and it directed the defendant to provide additional information to justify withholdings that remained in dispute.
The September 30, 2021 order by District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson is available to read here:
Below is an excerpt on high ranking and low ranking government officials:
Defendant maintains that it properly withheld information from informants interviewed by SIGAR, see Def.’s Mem. at 15–18, including high and low-ranking government officials who could be classified as “public” officials. Id. at 21–28. Defendant’s declarant explained that “[t]here does not appear to be any definition in law or regulation of the term ‘high ranking’ as applied to government employees,” Fifth Hubbard Declaration ¶ 13, and so SIGAR created its own “objective standard”:
In an attempt to use a bright-line definition in the context of the lessons learned program and to minimize subjectivity, SIGAR concluded that a “high ranking” government employee was anyone appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. This includes all ambassadors, generals, and admirals, all cabinet secretaries and heads of agencies, and all deputy secretaries, under secretaries, and assistant secretaries. In addition, informants who were obviously public figures with policy-making or other independent authority could be “high ranking” government employees, e.g., an individual appointed to an “acting” high-ranking position, or a special envoy.
In its cross motion for summary judgment, plaintiff claims that defendant mischaracterized some high-ranking public officials as low-ranking public officials, Pl.’s Mem. at 12–14, and that it then improperly balanced their privacy interests against the public interest in the information. See id. at 15–19.
Plaintiff accurately points out that the privacy interest diminishes and public interest increases as an official’s rank increases, see Pl.’s Mem. at 12, quoting Stern v. FBI, 737 F.2d 84, 92 (D.C. Cir. 1984), and it takes issue with the designation of five individuals as “low-ranking” or “low level” employees:
• the former Senior Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy;
• the former Senior Director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council;
• the Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff;
• the former special assistant to NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal; and
• a senior adviser to the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pl.’s Mem. at 13–14.15 According to plaintiff, based in part on publicly available biographies, these individuals held more important posts than the Third Vaughn Index would indicate, and therefore, the representations are “suspect,” and defendant’s declaration and Vaughn Index are “in bad faith and should be given no weight.” Pl.’s Mem. at 14.
While one can argue that these individuals played roles of importance, plaintiff has not identified evidence in the record that would overcome the presumption of good faith that attaches to the declarations. All are senior advisers to high-level decisionmakers. So while these credentialed individuals may outrank many government employees, they were not high-ranking government officials with decision-making authority that can be likened to the agency itself.

 

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