Top Three FOIA Cases Balance Public’s Right to Know, Government’s Right to Protect

The Obama administration announced Wednesday it would not release the explicit photos of a dead Osama bin Laden. The public program Democracy Now! showed a clip of Obama’s answer for why his administration decided not to release the photos, saying, “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement of additional violence.”

In response to this decision, the Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request against the Obama administration Thursday. A group of legal experts believe that the request could be permitted. The Atlantic Wire reported that included in this group is the former chief of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy’s Daniel Metcalf, who said, “If someone brought a FOIA complaint seeking the photo, and the government had improperly classified it, I think the government would lose.”

The FOIA was enacted in 1966, giving Americans the right to request access to national records that don’t compromise national security. Since then, FOIA cases have played an important role in keeping federal agencies transparent. The following is a list of three crucial FOIA cases that have taken place over the years:

1. ACLU successfully retrieves information on improperly monitored protest and social groups

In 2005 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opened numerous FOIA cases against the F.B.I. for monitoring local protest and social groups, according to a New York Times article. After Sept. 11, 2001, former Attorney General John Ashcroft gave the F.B.I. more power to monitor groups with suspected links to terrorism, which included various local protest groups. Formerly classified information was released containing information on about 150 groups.

Prominent groups such as PETA, Greenpeace and the Catholic Workers group were included in the files released. Over 2,500 pages detailing rallies, website activity and group meetings were included in the reports by the F.B.I. In some cases, the F.B.I. used inside informants to monitor activity within the groups, looking for links with illegal militant organizations.

2. J. Edgar Hoover’s plan to detain 12,000 Americans in 1950

Over the years, FOIA has forced the release of numerous cases detailing improper monitoring by former head of the F.B.I. J. Edgar Hoover. Of the most startling cases was a plan sent to the White House in 1950 to arrest some 12,000 Americans suspected of disloyalty, according to the New York Times. The plan was sent by Hoover to the White House on July 7, 1950.

Part of the plan sent to former President Harry S. Truman called for the suspension of habeas corpus and detention of these suspects in various military and federal prisons. There is no evidence that Truman enacted any portion of Hoover’s plan.

3. Department of Justice v. Landano

Vincent J. Landano was convicted of killing a Newark police officer in 1976. After his conviction, Landano filed numerous cases against the F.B.I. claiming that the agency held numerous classified files that would help prove his innocence. In 1988, Landano succeeded in getting a portion of the information he wanted released, but the F.B.I. held back hundreds of pages under the provision that protects the identity of a “confidential source.”

Landano’s legal counsel asked the F.B.I. to prove that its source was confidential. The case went back and forth, eventually making its way to the Supreme Court. On May 5, 1993, the Supreme Court heard the case and made an important decision favoring both the plaintiff and the defendant. The New York Times reported that the judges ruled that amnesty must remain in cases like these, but detailed information must be provided pertaining to why a source must remain confidential. This landmark case provided a new precedent for how secret witnesses were to be handled.