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FOIA Suit Chucked on Averted Terror Probe

(CN) - An Algerian granted U.S. asylum after his arrest on suspicion of terrorism is not entitled to more records about that year-long detention, a federal judge ruled.

Amine Touarsi fled Algeria and applied for political asylum in the United States in 1996, claiming that extremist groups had targeted him back home because of his political associations.

While Touarsi was awaiting a decision on his asylum application, U.S. immigration agents detained him on suspicions of terrorism in 1999.

He claimed in a 2013 federal complaint against the Justice Department that the detention ended more than a year later without any charges ever filed.

An immigration judge had initially denied Touarsi's application for political asylum during his imprisonment, which included two weeks in solitary confinement, but the Board of Immigration Appeals overturned that ruling and granted him asylum on Dec. 28, 2000, according to the lawsuit.

Touarsi has since become a U.S. citizen. Claiming that the U.S. government wrongfully detained him and continued to harass him after his release, Touarsi asked the FBI for all records on his arrest, detention and alleged surveillance by the government.

The Department of Justice and other agencies released 200 pages of records in response to his request, but withheld about 350 others under various exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

Touarsi's suit against the DOJ says the agencies improperly invoked those exemptions. He wants to see the withheld pages and have his records expunged.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ruled Friday that the government was justified in withholding the additional pages.

Some of the records are shielded by an exemption for documents related to national-defense or policy interests, according to the Jan. 23 ruling.

The FBI properly explained that "revealing methods of intelligence gathering could enable entities and individuals to better hide malicious activities from investigation," Cooper wrote.

Moreover, "the only additional information the FBI could plausibly provide would disclose the very intelligence methods the government seeks to protect," according to the ruling.

Even if Touarsi never committed a crime, disclosing some of the records may still compromise the FBI's intelligence sources and methods, the court said.

Touarsi had argued that, since his detention and investigation were improper, the government cannot withhold records under the attorney-client privilege or the deliberative process privilege.

But Cooper found that Touarsi failed to prove the government's misconduct. The decision not to prosecute Touarsi could have been based on a number of reasons, which were not necessarily improper. Likewise, the alleged surveillance and interrogation of Touarsi after his release are not sufficient to prove misconduct, according to the ruling.

Additionally, an immigration officer's handwritten notes were properly withheld under the deliberative-process privilege because they served in the agency's decision-making process, the opinion states.

Since Touarsi failed to show how the names and personal information of government personnel and third parties involved in his investigation could help the public understand government activities, the FBI does not have to disclose that information either, the court ruled.

Records relating to confidential informants and law-enforcement investigation techniques were also properly withheld because disclosing them would breach confidentiality agreements and reduce effectiveness of law enforcement, according to the opinion.

Touarsi had alleged that certain information, such as names of other suspects connected to the suspected plot that led to his detention, were no longer protected because they were disclosed in newspaper articles.

Cooper said this claim fails, however, to provide specific information or demonstrate the government's acknowledgement of those suspects' names.

The FBI also showed that it reasonably separated all non-exempt information from the withheld records, according to the ruling.

Cooper said the court could not expunge Touarsi's records as a remedy in a FOIA action.

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