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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. United States Department of Defense

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

February 7, 2017

Judicial Watch, Inc., Appellant
United States Department of Defense, Appellee

          Argued November 10, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:14-cv-01935)

          Jason B. Aldrich argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs was Paul J. Orfanedes.

          August E. Flentje, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief were Benjamin C. Mizer, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, and Matthew Collette, Attorney.

          Before: Henderson and Pillard, Circuit Judges, and Ginsburg, Senior Circuit Judge.


          Pillard, Circuit Judge

         Judicial Watch, Inc. (Judicial Watch) brought this action against the United States Department of Defense (DOD or the Department), alleging that the Department violated its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, when it failed to release copies of documents embodying the Secretary of Defense's 2014 determination that five Guantanamo Bay detainees could be transferred to Qatar. The Department moved for summary judgment. Judicial Watch acknowledged that the Department had produced one document, but opposed summary judgment on the ground that it continued to withhold a second document to which Judicial Watch believed it was entitled: a memo from Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The Department claimed that it had no obligation to produce that memo because it was a privileged deliberative document. The district court agreed and entered judgment in DOD's favor. Judicial Watch appealed. Because the district court correctly determined that the memo was privileged, we affirm.


         The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (NDAA) provides that the Secretary of Defense may transfer a prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay to the individual's country of origin, or any other foreign country, if so directed by a competent tribunal or if the Secretary "determines" that the prisoner is "no longer a threat to the national security of the United States." NDAA, Pub. L. No. 113-66, § 1035(a), 127 Stat. 672, 851 (2013). Otherwise, the Secretary may transfer a Guantanamo Bay prisoner only if he or she "determines" that: (1) "actions that have been or are planned to be taken will substantially mitigate the risk of such individual engaging or reengaging in any terrorist or other hostile activity that threatens the United States or United States persons or interests;" and (2) "the transfer is in the national security interest of the United States." Id. at § 1035(b). In making those determinations, the Secretary must "evaluate and take into consideration" eight separate factors. Id. at § 1035(c).

         On May 31, 2014, the Secretary of Defense exercised his statutory authority to transfer five Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Qatar in exchange for the release of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was captured and held in Afghanistan. That same day, the Secretary sent eight identical classified letters to eight members of Congress statutorily entitled to notice, explaining that he had authorized the transfer under NDAA section 1035(b) because he "determined" that: (1) the government of Qatar would "substantially mitigate" the threats posed by the prisoners; and (2) the transfer was "in the national security interest of the United States." J.A. 17. Three days later, Judicial Watch submitted the FOIA request at issue here, asking the government to produce "any and all records concerning, regarding, or relating to" the Secretary of Defense's "determinations" regarding the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were transferred to Qatar. Id. at 28. In response to DOD's objection that the request was overbroad, Judicial Watch pared it down to "any and all Secretary of Defense memos signed on or before May 31, 2014, that approved the release of the five Guantanamo Bay detainees exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, " as well as "copies of any 'determinations' made by the Secretary of Defense" pursuant to section 1305(a) of the NDAA "if such determinations [were] . . . separate and apart from the 'memos' that the Secretary of Defense may have signed." Id. at 39.

         Judicial Watch did not receive a timely response to its request. On November 18, 2014, Judicial Watch filed a complaint in district court against the Department of Defense alleging that the Department had failed to comply with its obligations under FOIA. DOD answered that it was "in the process of responding to [Judicial Watch's] FOIA request." J.A. 11. The Department provided its final response on April 27, 2015, stating that "[t]he only documents responsive to [the] request [were the] eight identical classified letters addressed to members of Congress." J.A. 13. DOD gave Judicial Watch a copy of one of the eight letters with all classified information redacted. See 5 U.S.C. § 552 (b) (1) (explaining that FOIA's disclosure requirements are inapplicable to "properly classified" information).

         The Department then moved for summary judgment. In support of its motion, DOD submitted a declaration from Mark H. Herrington, an attorney in the Department's Office of General Counsel, describing the processes that DOD had used to identify records responsive to Judicial Watch's FOIA request. Department staff had thoroughly searched DOD records and concluded that the only "potentially responsive" material was a packet prepared by Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin. Id. at 23. The packet included a "cover memo[]" from Mr. Lumpkin to the Secretary of Defense (the Lumpkin Memo) setting forth Mr. Lumpkin's recommendation regarding the Guantanamo Bay detainees, and the eight letters to members of Congress, which Mr. Lumpkin had prepared for the Secretary's signature. Id. Mr. Herrington attested that the Secretary did not sign or endorse the Lumpkin Memo, nor send the memo to Congress. Rather, the Secretary only signed and sent the accompanying letters. Id.

         Mr. Herrington averred that DOD staff did not produce the Lumpkin cover memo because it "did not constitute a signed memo or other determination by the Secretary of Defense relating to the detainees" and so was not responsive to Judicial Watch's request. J.A. 24. Even if the memo were responsive, Mr. Herrington asserted, it would be exempt from disclosure as a privileged deliberative document. See Pub. Citizen, Inc. v. Office of Mgmt. & Budget, 598 F.3d 865, 874 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (explaining that FOIA does not require agencies to disclose privileged information).

         The district court granted DOD's summary judgment motion. See Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Def., No. 14 Civ. 1935 (ABJ), 2016 WL 410993 (D.D.C. Feb. 2, 2016) (Judicial Watch I). The court described the Lumpkin Memo as "responsive to [Judicial Watch's] request, " id. at *1, but held that it was protected by ...

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