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Ullah v. Central Intelligence Agency

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 16, 2020

OBAID ULLAH, et al ., Plaintiffs,
v.
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case, like many brought under the Freedom of Information Act, triggers a clash between personal and public concerns, between a family's interest in mourning one of its own and the Government's interest in protecting sensitive national-security information. In 2002, Afghan citizen Gul Rahman died in an overseas detention center at the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency. Almost two decades later, the whereabouts of his corpse remains unknown. Plaintiffs Obaid Ullah -- the representative of Rahman's estate -- and the American Civil Liberties Union now seek this Court's enforcement of their FOIA request for information about what happened after his death.

         Although the Government has produced a fair number of documents detailing its treatment of Rahman, it has withheld others, relying heavily on FOIA exemptions that protect classified information from disclosure. While mindful that “[f]amily members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead, ” Nat'l Archives & Records Admin. v. Favish, 541 U.S. 157, 168 (2004), the Court finds that the Government has carried its burden of demonstrating the propriety of the relevant exemptions. It will therefore grant Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         As noted above, this FOIA case arises out of Rahman's death in 2002. When Rahman, who was allegedly residing in a Refugee Camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, traveled to Islamabad for a medical appointment, the CIA took custody of him and transported him to a facility in an unknown location. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint), ¶ 2. According to Plaintiffs, the CIA then “forcibly disappeared Mr. Rahman and tortured him to death.” Id., ¶ 1.

         The Agency has confirmed that Rahman died in its custody, releasing various reports that provide detailed information about his detention, treatment, and death. These materials, comprising hundreds of pages (albeit in redacted form), memorialize that Rahman died of hypothermia after being short-chained to a concrete floor in near-freezing temperatures. See Office of CIA Inspector General, Report of Investigation: Death of Detainee (April 27, 2005) at 3; Memorandum from John Brennan, CIA Director, to Sens. Feinstein & Chambliss, CIA Comments on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Program 4, 9 (June 27, 2013). As of this date, the CIA has not officially informed Rahman's family of his death or returned his body to them. See Compl., ¶ 7.

         B. Procedural History

         Seeking primarily to discover the location of Rahman's remains, Plaintiffs filed a FOIA request on April 18, 2018, for records concerning:

(1) The United States' (or its agents') disposition of Mr. Rahman's body after his death in CIA custody in November 2002;
(2) Any and all documents referencing the location of Mr. Rahman's body; and
(3) Procedures, protocols, or guidelines to be followed in the event of a CIA detainee's death while in United States' custody, including family notification, investigation and disposition of the body.

ECF No. 17-3 (Declaration of Antoinette B. Shiner), ¶ 6. After the CIA failed to immediately respond, Plaintiffs brought this suit in November 2018. See ECF No. 18 (Pl. Opp.) at 2.

         On May 31, 2019, the CIA identified 38 responsive documents, producing 9 of those documents in part while withholding the remaining 29 in full. See ECF No. 17-2 (Def. Statement of Facts), ¶ 4. (The CIA later determined that three of the documents withheld in full were not responsive. Id.) Defendant justified its withholdings by invoking FOIA Exemptions 1 (information classified to protect national security), 3 (information the disclosure of which is prohibited by another federal law), 5 (privileged communications), 6 (information that invades another individual's personal privacy), and 7(C) and (D) (information that was compiled for law-enforcement purposes and threatens to disclose personal information or the identity of a confidential source). See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b). The CIA acknowledges that the produced documents in their current redacted forms do not reveal the disposition or location of Rahman's body or any official policy the Agency has adopted with regard to the disposal of bodies. Frustrated in their pursuit of this specific information, Plaintiffs then informed Defendant of their intent to challenge the asserted withholdings. See ECF No. 15 (Joint Status Report of June 14, 2019) at 1.

         The CIA countered with a Motion for Summary Judgment, contending that the agency had fulfilled its search obligations under FOIA and that any withholdings were justified by the above-mentioned exemptions. Plaintiffs opposed that Motion, challenging the CIA's withholdings and its assertion that none of the redacted information was segregable. The Court refrained from immediately deciding the Motion, instead ordering the Government to produce the contested documents for in camera review. It has since reviewed the redactions along with Defendant's ...


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