(CN) – A federal judge cannot make sensitive FBI information publicly available to spite the FBI for improperly withholding information about its investigations and surveillance operations as requested by Islamic groups, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
The federal appeals panel in Pasadena said the Central District Court of California was “justifiably annoyed with the government’s withholding of documents from the plaintiffs and the court,” but determined nonetheless that the information was related to national security and should remain sealed.
“We do not necessarily endorse the government’s conduct during the litigation, but we agree with the government that the sealed order contains information that should not become public,” the thee-judge panel ruled in an appeal of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by five U.S. citizens and six Islamic organizations in Southern California.
The plaintiffs, including the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and the Council on American Islamic Relations-California, filed a FOIA request with the FBI in 2006 for documents related to any investigations of them. The bureau responded by releasing eight, heavily redacted pages and telling most of the plaintiffs that searches had come up empty.
After the groups and individuals filed suit in 2007, however, the FBI found more than 100 pages of documents relating to nine of the 11 plaintiffs. The government also heavily redacted those documents, claiming that much of the information was outside the scope of the FOIA request, according to the ruling.
The plaintiffs asked the District Court to order the government to show the redacted information, and the court reviewed the documents in chambers. Only then did the FBI reveal, for the first time, that it had withheld a trove of related documents from both the plaintiffs and the court.
While U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled that that the government had properly withheld most of the documents from the plaintiffs, he found that the government had misled the court. In an effort to “correct the public record,” he then tried to unseal his order.
After the government filed an emergency appeal with the 9th Circuit, the court stayed that release in 2009. A second three-judge panel from the appellate court examined the documents in question and ruled Wednesday that the order should remain sealed, despite the government’s impropriety.
“In this case we have carefully reviewed the record and the district court’s clear frustration with the government’s withholding from the court of responsive documents,” Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the panel. “The District Court has, however, at the same time, concluded that such documents were, for the most part, properly withheld from plaintiffs under the FOIA. The sealed order that is the subject of this appeal, while not disclosing any documents, does itself contain information that the FOIA authorizes the government to withhold from plaintiffs and that was disclosed only in camera.”
The panel vacated the District Court’s 2009 order and remanded the case, directing the court to “eliminate statements the government has designated as national security and sensitive law enforcement information before it may be unsealed.”