Contact: Matt Landin
WASHINGTON (Dec. 13, 2005) — Media groups are opposing federal legislation Tuesday that would allow the Defense Department to withhold from public disclosure unclassified information on prisoner abuses and employee misconduct.
The 2006 Defense Authorization Act (S. 1042) contains a provision that would give the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) a blanket exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for unclassified or declassified operational files. The defense bill is pending in a Senate/House conference.
The same FOIA exemption is also included in the Senate’s 2006 Intelligence Authorization Act (S. 1803).
Files in this category recently released under FOIA include photos detailing abuses of detainees in Iraq and reports highlighting illegal detainment of non-combatants, criminal misconduct by DIA employees and unfair treatment of DIA officers who reported mistreatment.
The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of the nation’s leading media groups, has joined other advocacy groups in asking that the exemption be removed from both bills.
The DIA sought a similar provision in 2000, but Congress rejected it. This time around, no public hearings or debate have been held on the matter.
While the CIA enjoys a broad FOIA exemption for its operational files due to the clandestine nature of its methods, the DIA collects much of its information through open sources and routinely declassifies and releases documents. Declassified material has proven extremely valuable to informed debate on government policy.
Any documents the DIA has legitimately classified to protect national security would already be covered by the standard FOIA exemptions. Therefore, the FOIA exemption being proposed in the authorization bill would pertain only to unclassified or declassified material. Because federal law prevents government agencies from classifying material to conceal illegal or embarrassing activity, this exemption could shield such activity against public or congressional scrutiny.