WASHINGTON (CN) – An open government advocacy group is seeking the release of Justice Department documents related to its opposition to a New York Times bestseller about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The James Madison Project filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Justice Department in July 2014, seeking information about why the agency opposed the 2012 release of “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden” by Matt Bissonnette, a Navy SEAL.
According to a complaint the group filed Wednesday in the D.C. District Court, the
government claimed the book contained top secret information, and that Bissonnette, who wrote under the pen name Mark Owen, violated his non-disclosure agreement by bypassing a Pentagon review of the book.
The New York Times reported that the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into Bissonnette’s publication of the book, and the author later told the New York Daily News that he paid $4.5 million to the government for its skipping the review.
“We want to get a sense of what were the underlying decisions that were reached in this case that led to the government to go after him so severely,” said Mark Zaid, executive director of the James Madison Project.
The group’s FOIA request seeks internal memos, emails and other documents that it believes will reveal the story behind the government’s reaction to Bissonnette’s book.
This material includes documents pertaining to the author’s obligations under the non-disclosure agreement, classified materials the book might disclose, assessments of what the revelation of such material might mean for national security, and any legal action the government considered against Bissonnette or Penguin Group, the book’s publisher, the complaint says.
The group says its request allowed for the redaction of names of low-level government officials and contractors, but that it insisted the privacy of higher-ups who directed the government’s response to the book was “diminished” as a result of their involvement in the investigation.
Similarly, the group argued the public’s interest in the government’s documents outweighed Bissonnette’s right to privacy, the complaint says.
The Department of Justice disagreed and rejected the James Madison Project’s request on Sept. 12, 2014, explaining the request involved law enforcement records about third parties, which it said are protected under the Freedom of Information Act.
According to the complaint, the agency also went on to claim the James Madison Project did not make a strong enough claim of “overriding public interest” to warrant the documents’ release.
But the group claims the agency ignored parts of its argument in rejecting its request.
“How is any analysis internally a violation of the guy’s privacy if you’re publicly stating we’ve determined there’s classified information in the book?” Zaid said.
The group lost an appeal before the Director of the Office of Information Policy in January largely with the same reasoning as the Department of Justice’s rejection.
The James Madison Project submitted similar requests to the Navy, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA, all of which were either rejected or ignored, the complaint says.
The group asks the court to compel production of the documents it sought in its original Freedom of Information Act request.
Representatives for the Department of Justice declined to comment.
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