Protect Democracy Project, Inc. v. National Security Agency, No. 20-5131 (D.C. Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Protect Democracy challenged the National Security Agency’s decision to withhold from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act a memorandum the NSA Deputy Director wrote in 2017, memorializing what was said on a phone call he participated in between then-president Trump and the NSA Director soon after it occurred. According to an account of the phone call in Special Counsel Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump asked the NSA Director whether he could do anything to refute news stories connecting Trump to the Russian government. The NSA cited a FOIA exemption that incorporates privileges available to the government in civil litigation, claiming executive privilege for presidential communications.
The district court sustained the privilege claim and denied a request to examine the memo for any segregable passages subject to release under FOIA. The D.C. Circuit affirmed. The government did not waive the privilege when it published in the Mueller Report a description of the conversation. Based on an “in camera” review, the memo falls squarely within the scope of the presidential communications privilege, which applies to the memo in its entirety. “Protect Democracy cannot shrink the scope of the privilege by invoking FOIA’s segregability requirement, even if its FOIA request raises credible allegations of governmental misconduct.” The Mueller Report’s description of the phone call did not waive the privilege, as not all the information in the memo specifically matches the information released in the report.