American Civil Liberties Union v. National Security Agency, No. 17-3399 (2d Cir. 2019)Annotate this Case
Under Exemption 5 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), an agency "adopts" a previously privileged document where the agency's statements or behavior indicate that the agency treats the document as binding authority, and "incorporates" a previously privileged document "by reference" where a formal agency opinion or decision explicitly relies on that document and its reasoning. The ACLU filed suit under FOIA, seeking disclosure of certain documents concerning the legal authority for certain national security programs from the Government.
The Second Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the Government and held that (1) a document reflects an agency's "working law" when the agency regards that document as functionally binding authority, and "adoption" and "incorporation by reference" are means by which an otherwise privileged document becomes an agency's "working law;" (2) "express adoption" is a basis for disclosure of a previously privileged document where an agency's statements indicate that it now acts (or refrains from acting) pursuant to the document's functionally binding authority; (3) "incorporation by reference" is a basis for disclosure of a previously privileged document where an agency's formal opinion or ruling explicitly relies on that document and its reasoning in reaching a decision; (4) OLC 10 was properly withheld under FOIA Exemption 5; (5) the six intelligence program documents at issue were properly withheld under FOIA Exemptions 1 (classified information) and 3 (material shielded from disclosure by other statutes); and (6) because FOIA decisions must be evaluated as of the time of the agency decision, courts should not order reprocessing simply to reassure themselves that a FOIA decision remains current in light of subsequent disclosures.