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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Navy May Have to Disclose Weapons Data, Court Says

(CN) - The U.S. Navy did not have the right to refuse a Freedom of Information Act request related to the storage of weapons and explosives at its base in Puget Sound, Wash., the Supreme Court ruled, 6-1, on Monday.

The government had argued that it could withhold the requested materials under exemption 2 of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects internal agency personnel rules and practices from disclosure. But the high court's majority disagreed, reversing the August 2009 decision of the 9th Circuit.

"We would ill-serve Congress's purpose by construing Exemption 2 to reauthorize the expansive withholding that Congress wanted to halt," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.

Congress believed this exemption led to excessive withholding of documents and sought to narrow its reach.

Puget Sound resident Glen Scott Milner had requested information from the Navy about its operations at the military base in his community, which the Navy uses to store weapons, ammunitions and explosives. He filed suit after the government claimed that records on the location and blast ranges of explosives could be kept secret under the agency practices exemption.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December.

The data that the Navy withheld is known as Explosive Safety Quantity Distance (ESQD), which Navy uses in the storage and transportation of munitions.

ESQD information helps the military branch design and construct storage facilities to prevent chain reactions in case of detonation. The ESQD calculations are often incorporated into specialized maps depicting the effects of hypothetical explosions.

"These data and maps calculate and visually portray the magnitude of hypothetical detonations," Kagan wrote. "By no stretch of the imagination do they relate to 'personnel rules and practices,' as that term is most naturally understood.

"They concern the physical rules governing explosives, not the workplace rules governing sailors; they address the handling of dangerous materials, not the treatment of employees."

A federal judge and the 9th Circuit had both ruled in favor of the Navy, finding that the information was internal because it instructed agency personnel how to do their jobs.

"This odd reading would produce a sweeping exemption, posing the risk that FOIA would become less a disclosure than a 'withholding statute,'" the ruling states.

While reliance on exemptions overall rose 83 percent from 1998 to 2006, reliance on Exemption 2 soared 344 percent over the same time period, according to the opinion.

"We acknowledge that our decision today upsets three decades of agency practice ... and therefore may force considerable adjustments," Kagan wrote. "We also note, however, that the government has other tools at hand to shield national security information and other sensitive materials. Most notably, Exemption 1 of FOIA prevents access to classified documents."

And Exemption 7 was put in place to protect information compiled for law enforcement purposes.

"If these or other exemptions do not cover records whose release would threaten the nation's vital interests, the government may of course seek relief from Congress," the majority wrote. "All we hold today is that Congress has not enacted the FOIA exemption the government desires."

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented from the court, noting that there are no exemptions that specifically prevent the release of internal documents dealing with "building plans, safe combinations, computer passwords, evacuation plans, and the like."

He asserted that the majority's ruling was "oblivious to Congress' intention that FOIA not frustrate law enforcement."

"As the court points out," Breyer wrote, Congress remains free to correct whatever problems it finds in today's narrowing of Exemption 2.

"But legislative action takes time; Congress has much to do; and other matters, when compared to FOIA revision, may warrant higher legislative priority," the dissent states.

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