Department of Justice drops controversial non-disclosure proposal

The DOJ, in a letter dated November 3, 2011, said that it is dropping its proposed regulation that would allow federal law enforcement agencies in certain cases to tell Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters that the government has no records on a subject, when it actually does. The DOJ indicated that it is now looking at other options to preserve the integrity of sensitive records but allow for public openness.

The letter noted that the DOJ has actually been issuing such denial responses for nearly 25 years, since Attorney General Edwin Meese issued the directive. The DOJ defended this approach and maintained that it did not constitute “lying” as some have suggested, and contended that its proposed regulation was an effort to systematize Meese’s order in federal regulations and to obtain public comments.

While expressly contemplated by statute and, according to the DOJ, necessary to protect vital law enforcement and national security interests, the practice went on for years with much less transparency. Under Meese’s guide, the government could tell FOIA requesters that it had no records if merely confirming their existence would be a tip-off that there was a criminal investigation. Denials of record existence also were permitted in situations legally referred to as “exclusions,” i.e., when federal law enforcement agencies needed to protect the identities of informants and when the FBI was asked for records about foreign intelligence, counterintelligence or international terrorism.