By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
Justice Department acts to soften its position on withholding
government information sought by Terry Anderson lawsuit sp.
MOVING WITH extraordinary speed, the Department of Justice has responded ? although not in court yet ? to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Terry Anderson.
Anderson, former Associated Press Middle East correspondent, filed the lawsuit against 13 government agencies and departments after repeatedly being frustrated by the dearth of information released after his FoIA requests for information about him and the men who held him captive for nearly seven years in Lebanon (E&P, Oct. 8, p. 11).
One of the reasons given Anderson as to why no information about his individual captors would be released was that they had not signed privacy exemption waivers.
About two weeks after Anderson filed suit, however, the Department of Justice released a letter to Anderson’s attorney stating that it would no longer assert privacy exemptions for the individuals named in the FoIA request.
“We wish to inform you at this time that the government will not assert exemptions to protect the privacy interests of any terrorist abductors who are mentioned in documents responsive to FoIA requests that are the subject of this lawsuit,” the letter stated.
“It is, of course, likely that other grounds for withholding information will apply to existing records pertaining to these individuals. Accordingly, we cannot now say that additional documents or information will be released as a result of this determination,” the letter added.
Anderson’s attorney, Stuart Newberger of Crowell & Moring, explained that the State Department and Drug Enforcement Agency asserted privacy exemptions, while the others mainly based their actions on national security exemptions.
The Justice Department, Newberger noted, still had not filed its response with the court, but the deadline had not yet approached.
At that time, he said, they will
be able to see the position of each agency.
“After that, it is a safe assumption there still will be a large number of documents withheld,” he said, adding that a Vaughn index, or list of documents not released and why, would be required next.
“It is extraordinary that the Department of Justice released this press release and attached the letter to me,” he said, adding it was very unusual for such a statement to come before the response was filed in court.
Newberger chalked up the government’s quick response to the media pressure Anderson’s team employed through numerous articles and TV news stories.
“We pushed the right buttons and got attention,” he said. “That wasn’t an accident, either.”