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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Reverses Self |on Pablo Escobar Docs

(CN) - A federal judge vacated his earlier decision to declassify operational documents related to the CIA's purported role in the 1993 death of notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The nonprofit Institute for Policy Studies sued the CIA in May 2006, claiming the agency failed to timely respond to a request for records on Escobar's death and the activities of short-lived vigilante group "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar" or PEPES.

The institute claims PEPES waged a bloody war against the drug kingpin and his supporters, and tortured, raped and killed innocent civilians in the process.

In its lawsuit, the nonprofit says its initial Freedom of Information Act request resulted in its being given only previously declassified materials, along with a Vaughn index

prepared by former CIA information review officer Elizabeth Anne Culver.

A Vaughn Index is a document that federal agencies prepare in anticipation of FOIA litigation to justify each withholding of information under the Act.

In this case, the index contained a discussion of documents related to "special activities" the agency carried out that had been withheld.

The institute argued that the alleged revelation in the index voided the CIA's claim that some of the documents requested were exempt from release under the special activity exception to the FOIA.

The group claimed the CIA is required to search classified operational files for responsive terms if the existence of the files are disclosed.

In August 2015, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered that the CIA perform another search and submit all nonexempt records along with a new Vaughn Index to the court by January 22, 2016.

In its response, the CIA neither confirmed nor denied the existence of special intelligence activities surrounding Escobar or Los Pepes, and said that Culver misused the term "special activities" in her response.

"I regret the misperception that was created by the imprecise choice of words in some of the passages in the Vaughn Indices, and by the lack of an explanation as to what other plausible reasons the CIA might have had to be briefing Congress and the National Security Council that are unrelated to covert action," the statement reads.

"Unfortunately, as the court has noted, the inclusion of this language mistakenly gave the impression that a special activity was being acknowledged. It was not."

In a Jan. 28 ruling, Judge Lamberth conceded his previous decision to declassify was based on a misinterpretation of the disclosures in Culver's statement.

"Specifically, the court improperly reasoned that the concession that there were special activities, when taken in conjunction with the unredacted text of the Los Pepes Panel documents demonstrating CIA involvement, meant that the CIA had effectively disclosed the existence of the specific special activities plaintiff had alleged," Lamberth said.

"Because the relevant Vaughan Indices say that mention of special activities has been redacted but do not describe those activities, it is possible that there are special activities discussed in the redacted portions of those documents that do not relate to Escobar at all," he continued.

"The Vaughn Indices' disclosure of special activities, whether or not those activities relate to Pablo Escobar, at most declassifies the mere existence of discussion of some sort of special activity in the Los Pepes Panel documents," Lamberth said.

"Plaintiff's argument would, if accepted, punish the government for doing precisely what FOIA requires-providing what disclosure it safely can, and where it cannot safely disclose, explaining why-by creating a constant risk of inadvertent declassification. The case law shows that FOIA does not command such a result," Lamberth wrote.

Lamberth also rescinded his previous search order, though the CIA failed to meet its court-ordered deadline.

"Time after time they get a deadline, they fail to meet it and they simply ask for more time," said a frustrated Paul Paz Y Mino, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, during an interview with Courthouse News.

"We were very pleasantly surprised when Lamberth first said they needed to search, and then said again that they needed to and now it seems that he has done an about face on that," Paz Y Mino said.

"Our strategy now is to go through the documents that have been released. There's probably going to be quite a lot of redactions that need to be challenged because they were quite liberal in their policy of redacting documents, especially the DEA and CIA. We're probably going to challenge a lot of them," he said.

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