Federal judge denies FOIA request for secret CIA document

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A federal judge has determined that the CIA can keep secret a closely guarded internal analysis at the center of an intense fight between the agency and Congress.

District Court Judge James Boasberg ruled against a journalist on Tuesday who had tried to uncover the classified documents — known as the Panetta Review, because they was completed under orders from former agency Director Leon Panetta — under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The CIA had used “sound” reasoning in keeping the documents secret, Boasberg decided in a 19-page judgment, preventing it from making its way to the public.

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The documents “may be withheld in full,” Boasberg added.

At issue is a set of more than 40 draft memos about the CIA’s past use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as waterboarding and the use of “stress positions,” which many consider to be torture. Panetta ordered the CIA to prepare the analysis after Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee announced in 2009 that they would begin working on an exhaustive study of the tactics, which were used during the Bush administration.

The CIA effort was abandoned after only a year and remained secret until Senate staffers obtained the documents during work on their own analysis.

The agency said that its half-finished review was an internal agency effort and should not have been passed along to the Senate. In response, the CIA attempted to search the Senate side of a walled-off computer, which it and the Senate panel had used to share information. Critics said the act amounted to the CIA spying on the Senate and called for Director John Brennan to resign

The internal analysis is believed to largely support the findings of the Intelligence Committee, which is that the interrogation program was cruel, ineffective and that the CIA lied to its overseers while carrying it out. 

In December of 2013, Vice journalist Jason Leopold filed a FOIA request to obtain the memos but had been denied on the grounds that the Panetta Review was an internal agency study, has been classified to protect national security and is specifically exempted from disclosure by other laws.

Boasberg agreed that the report rightfully fits under the FOIA exemption for inter or intra-agency documents, which is supposed to protect the ability of staffers to have candid discussions.

“In the end, requiring disclosure of the Reviews would cause the sort of harm that the deliberative-process privilege was designed to prevent — i.e., inhibiting frank and open communications among agency personnel,” he wrote.