Judge Puts Inquiry Into Honduran Coup to Rest

     (CN) – A federal judge refused to order the release of more records on possible U.S. involvement in the 2009 coup against the Honduran president.
     Freelance investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood had submitted his first request under the Freedom of Information Act within days of the June 28, 2009, coup d’état in Honduras.
     That July 1 request asked SouthCom, short for the Department of Defense’s Southern Command, for all records related to the activities of the Honduran Armed Forces with respect to the coup against President Manuel Zelaya.
     Bigwood also wanted records about whether the kidnapped president passed through any military bases, such as Soto Cano, which has a significant U.S. presence.
     Finally the request sought any interagency communications to and from Southcom, which provides contingency planning, operations and security cooperation for Central and South America and the Caribbean.
     One week later, Bigwood submitted a second request, this time seeking all records from May 1979 related to Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, a Honduran Army general and chief of staff whom Bigwood identified as “a key participant in organizing and carrying out the coup.”
     Though Bigwood asked for expedited processing on both requests, he says Southcom did not grant this until late November 2009, for the first request alone, in an “interim response.”
     Bigwood sent Southcom an administrative appeal in February 2011 and filed suit the next month, claiming that the searches were inadequate, and wrongly invoked FOIA exemptions.
     Southcom ultimately produced 66 thoroughly redacted documents, consisting of 272 pages, in June.
     The agency coughed up another 26 pages weeks later and then conducted a second search that produced another 784 pages on Sept. 26, 2013.
     Though U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson denied SouthCom and the CIA summary judgment last year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey later recommended granting the motion, finding that the searches were “reasonable and sufficient under the law.”
     Major Lisa Bloom “sets forth the methodology of the search process; details the agency’s rationale in identifying the specific subcomponents with potentially responsive records; indicates the types of searches performed, both electronic and manual; lists the various databases searched; and specifies the search terms used,” Harvey wrote a month ago. “Major Bloom also avers that Southcom determined, based on its review of documents located in both sets of searches, that ‘no other components of [Southcom] were likely to have information responsive to plaintiff’s FOIA request.'”
     For the magistrate, “Southcom’s willingness to conduct a second search for documents responsive to plaintiff’s FOIA requests to address certain of his concerns, and to send personnel to Honduras to assist in the search for documents responsive to his requests, would substantially undercut any suggestion of bad faith.”
     Bigwood has no basis to claim that the searches failed to produce whole categories of responsive records, as well as documents cited in the first document production.
     Such “speculation … ‘does not undermine the determination that the agency conducted an adequate search for the requested records,'” Harvey wrote, quoting a 2004 ruling in Wilbur v. CIA. “Plaintiff’s assertion that various records related to his requests must have existed is ‘simply conjecture’ and is ‘insufficient to justify a finding that the search was inadequate.'”
     Judge Jackson adopted the report and recommendation Friday.
     Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declined to comment on the ruling. Representatives for Bigwood have not returned a request for comment.
     Bigwood filed a similar suit in 2008, challenging the Defense Intelligence Agency’s seven-year delay to his request for more than 4,000 records about Colombian death squad leader Carlos Castaño.

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