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Freedom Watch, Inc. v. National Security Agency

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 12, 2016




         Four-and-a-half years ago, Freedom Watch, Inc., brought an action in this Court pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), seeking documents from the State Department and three other agencies related to a recently published New York Times article. The Court ultimately entered judgment for the agencies on various grounds, all affirmed on appeal. See Freedom Watch, Inc. v. Nat'l Sec. Agency, 783 F.3d 1340 (D.C. Cir. 2015). During the appeal, however, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned over to the Department emails from her private server, some of which State thought might be responsive to Freedom Watch's FOIA request. Accordingly, as proposed by State, the Circuit remanded the case so that this Court could “manage record development and oversee the search of the former Secretary's emails[.]” Id. at 1344. State has since conducted that supplemental search, and-finding other potential sources of responsive documents-it has conducted additional searches as well. Because these searches were adequate and otherwise complied with FOIA, the Court will grant summary judgment for State.

         I. Background

         In June 2012, the New York Times published an article about classified government cyberattacks against the Iranian nuclear program. See David E. Sanger, Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran, N.Y. Times, June 1, 2012, at ¶ 1. The article immediately prompted Freedom Watch to submit a FOIA request to the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”), the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency (“NSA”) seeking, among other categories of documents, “[a]ny and all information that refers or relates in any way to information released to David E. Sanger, ” the author of the article. Compl., Ex. 1. Later the same month, Freedom Watch filed a Complaint in this Court, challenging the agencies' responses to its request.

         The agencies variously moved for judgment on the pleadings and for summary judgment, and the Court resolved all motions in their favor, with one exception: It initially denied State's motion for summary judgment as to Freedom Watch's request for any information released to David Sanger. Order, Dec. 13, 2012, ECF No. 8. State then proceeded to conduct an extensive search for responsive records, a process which included: identifying the “offices, overseas posts, or records systems within the Department” likely to contain the requested information; conducting full-text searches of the identified records, including a voluntary supplemental search; and manually reviewing the records of five employees whom Sanger interviewed. See Freedom Watch, Inc. v. Nat'l Sec. Agency, 49 F.Supp.3d 1, 4-5 (D.D.C. 2014) (detailing search efforts). Satisfied that the search was adequate, the Court granted State's motion for summary judgment on the sole remaining claim. Id. at 3.

         On appeal, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the Court's judgments as to the CIA, Department of Defense, and NSA, and it rejected all of Freedom Watch's objections to the Court's grant of summary judgment for State. Freedom Watch, 783 F.3d at 1344-45. In accordance with State's request, however, the Circuit remanded the case so that the Department could process and search emails that Secretary Clinton had kept on a private server, and had only recently made available. Id at 1344. This was the sole purpose of the remand-“to manage record development and oversee the search of the former Secretary's emails for records responsive to Freedom Watch's FOIA request.” Id.

         Accordingly, on remand, this Court ordered State to “prioritize its search for responsive electronic records as soon as [the] digitization of the relevant emails [was] complete, ” and it directed the parties to “meet and confer concerning appropriate search terms.” Minute Order, May 5, 2015. The parties did so, but were unable to reach full agreement on the appropriate list of terms. See Joint Status Report, June 29, 2015, ECF No. 35. After holding a telephone conference on the matter, the Court ordered State to conduct the search using its list of proposed terms, plus certain additional terms proposed by Freedom Watch. See Minute Order, August 5, 2015.[1] State conducted its search of Secretary Clinton's emails using those terms, but uncovered no responsive documents. Defs.' Status Report, Aug. 19, 2015, ECF No. 37; Defs.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“Defs.' MSJ”), Supplemental Declaration of John F. Hackett (“Hackett Decl.”) ¶ 9.

         Soon after concluding that search, however, two former State employees provided the Department with additional, potentially relevant records. See Motion to Stay, Sept. 4, 2015, ECF No. 40, at ¶¶ 5-6. And in late 2015, the Department located a potentially responsive collection of electronic files within the Office of the Executive Secretariat that had not previously been searched. See Defs.' Mot. for Extension of Time, Dec. 22, 2015, ECF No. 45. For both sets of newly revealed documents, State proposed-and the Court ordered-that the Department conduct additional searches using the same list of search terms previously applied to Secretary Clinton's emails. Minute Order, Oct. 20, 2015; Minute Order, Jan. 11, 2016. The Department did so. Among the documents from the former State employees, the Department found two responsive “intra-agency email messages . . . detail[ing] discussions between State officials regarding a briefing for an interview, including draft versions of the briefing.” Hackett Decl. ¶¶ 15, 19. State produced those documents in part, redacting portions under the deliberative process privilege as permitted by FOIA's Exemption 5, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5). Id. ¶ 19. Upon searching the file collection from the Executive Secretariat, the Department found and produced in full one responsive document. Id. ¶ 11.

         State now moves for summary judgment, maintaining that its search was adequate, and that it has released all responsive, non-exempt records. Defs.' MSJ 5-12. Freedom Watch opposes the motion, challenging State's use of search terms and certain of its withholdings and redactions. Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. for Discovery and Opp'n to Defs.' MSJ (“Pl.'s Opp'n”) 13- 14, 18-20. Freedom Watch also moves for discovery. It asserts that State's belated unearthing of potentially relevant documents-where the Department had earlier claimed to have performed an adequate search-suggests bad faith and therefore warrants discovery. Id. at 13, 17. These arguments, for the reasons outlined below, are ill-founded. The Court will therefore grant State's motion for summary judgment and deny Freedom Watch's motion for discovery.

         II. Legal Standards

         FOIA cases are typically resolved at summary judgment. See Brayton v. Office of U.S. Trade Rep., 641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Summary judgment is appropriately granted if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         When an agency's search is questioned, it must show “beyond material doubt that its search was reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Dep't of State, 641 F.3d 504, 514 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Valencia-Lucena v. U.S. Coast Guard, 180 F.3d 321, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1999)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The search is judged by the individual circumstances of each case. See Truitt v. Dep't of State, 897 F.2d 540, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1990). The central question is whether the search itself was reasonable, regardless of the results. See Cunningham v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 40 F.Supp.3d 71, 83-84 (D.D.C. 2014). Agencies need not turn over every stone, but they must conduct a “good faith, reasonable search of those systems of records likely to possess requested records.” Id. (quoting SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1201 (D.C. Cir. 1991)).

         Agency declarations, especially from individuals coordinating the search, are afforded “a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.” SafeCard, 926 F.2d at 1200. Indeed, courts can award summary judgment solely based on agency affidavits and declarations that are “relatively detailed and non-conclusory.” Id. For that reason, “[d]iscovery in FOIA is rare and should be denied where an agency's declarations are reasonably detailed, submitted in good faith[, ] and the court is satisfied that no factual dispute remains.” Baker & Hostetler LLP v. U.S. Dep't of Commerce, 473 F.3d 312, 318 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Schrecker v. DOJ, 217 F.Supp.2d 29, 35 (D.D.C. 2002)).

         III. ...

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