Monday, November 23, 2015
The Second Circuit ruled today that plaintiffs are not entitled to certain memos and documents from the Office of Legal Counsel outlining the legal justification for the government's targeted killing (drone) program.
The ruling means that the OLC documents will remain under wraps, and we won't now see (and may never see) the full paper trail for the program.
Recall that the New York Times, Charlie Savage, Scott Shane, and the ACLU sued to obtain OLC memos under FOIA. In the first round of the litigation, the Second Circuit ordered the release of a 2010 OLC memo, because government officials had revealed the contents in public statements and thus waived its right to invoke a FOIA exemption. (The officials' statements revealing the contents came before and soon after the document was released.)
In this second round of litigation, the court today said that the district judge properly withheld the documents, because they contained intelligence information. As to the plaintiffs' argument that the government disclosed the contents of one of these memos, a 2002 memo, the court said that the disclosure came too long after the document (8 years), and that the disclosure might have come up in a different context. The court explained:
However, the passage of a significant interval of time between a protected document and a Government official's subsequent statement discussing the same or a similar topic considered in the document inevitably raises a concern that the context in which the official spoke might be significantly different from the context in which the earlier document was prepared. Even if the content of legal reasoning set forth in one context is somewhat similar to such reasoning that is later explained publicly in another context, such similarity does not necessarily result in waiver. Moreover, ignoring both the differences in context and the passage of a significant interval of time would risk requiring Government officials to consider numerous arguably similar documents prepared long before and then measure their public words very carefully so as not to inadvertently precipitate a waiver of protection for those earlier documents.
The upshot is that we won't get these additional OLC documents and won't learn much or anything more than we already know about the legal justifications for the program.