Case Involves “Unmasking” and “Upstreaming” of 48 Members of Congress
Earlier this week, PPSA asked the D.C. Circuit court to require federal agencies to follow FOIA’s most basic requirement: conduct a search for records. Although that should be simple enough, agencies have been excusing themselves of that obligation at an alarming rate, and PPSA has asked the court to rein in this practice.
PPSA’s request this week for an en banc hearing follows up on a FOIA request PPSA submitted in 2020 to six agencies – the Department of Justice and the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of State. PPSA sought records from these agencies about the possible surveillance of 48 Members of Congress who serve or served on intelligence oversight committees.
The request specifically concerns two intelligence practices under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
One such practice is “unmasking,” which results in the naming of Americans caught up in foreign surveillance in U.S. intelligence summaries. The other practice is “upstreaming,” the use of a person’s name as a search term in a database. Targets include prominent current and former House and Senate Members, including Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Mike Turner, Rep. Adam Schiff, as well as now-Vice President Kamala Harris and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Their silence speaks volumes,” Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel said at the time. “They clearly do not want to answer our requests.”
Last year, the district court invoked the judicially created Glomar doctrine, which allows agencies to neither confirm nor deny the existence of records relating to matters critical to national security. In doing so, the district court relied on the D.C. Circuit’s expansion of the Glomar doctrine in Wolf v. CIA (2007) and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) v. NSA (2012), which allows agencies to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of records without even searching first to determine if any records might exist. In both instances, the federal court allowed the government to skip the search requirement in the text of the Freedom of Information Act.
PPSA is now petitioning the court to reconsider this ruling with an en banc hearing with the court.
“FOIA’s plain text requires federal agencies to search for responsive records before determining what information they may properly withhold, even in the Glomar context,” PPSA declares. “Wolf and EPIC are untenable in the face of intervening Supreme Court precedent, and they clash with at least three other circuits that, even in Glomar cases, reject deviating from the demands of FOIA’s plain text.”
In short, PPSA is alerting this federal court how far it has strayed from precedent and the law.
Glomar began as a judicial solution to protect the most sensitive secrets of the nation. In the original case, Glomar protected secrets involving the CIA’s raising of a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine. It has since been expanded to prevent the searching of records; an inherently absurd proposition given that agencies cannot even make a Glomar determination without looking. And Glomar is now reflexively used to plainly defy FOIA, a law that mandates searches.
PPSA will report on the court’s response.