9th Circuit blocks judge from unsealing ruling on FBI files

Thursday, March 31, 2011

PASADENA, Calif. — A federal appeals court has blocked a judge from unsealing his ruling in a dispute over FBI records without first redacting information the government says could compromise national security.

The case involves several Muslim groups and activists who claim they have been unfairly spied on and questioned by the FBI. Nearly five years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union and 11 Islamic organizations and activists sought to obtain records they say would prove the FBI is unlawfully targeting Muslims in Southern California.

The FBI released four pages of records but redacted large portions of the documents, claiming they were beyond the scope of the groups’ Freedom of Information Act request. The groups then filed suit, and the FBI later released more than 100 pages of redacted documents.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ordered the FBI to turn over unaltered versions of the files so that he could review them in private and determine whether there was a valid reason for the redactions. During that review, Carney learned that the agency had discovered other documents that it had not revealed to the court or to the plaintiffs.

Carney later ruled that the FBI had properly withheld most of the records from the plaintiffs but that the agency had misled the court by not revealing the existence of the additional documents. Carney filed his ruling under seal but said he would unseal the ruling unless directed otherwise by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, ruling yesterday in Islamic Shura Council v. FBI, blocked Carney from unsealing the ruling, saying that while the ruling itself did not disclose any documents, it did “contain information that the FOIA authorizes the government to withhold from plaintiffs.”

“In this case we have carefully reviewed the record and the district court’s clear frustration with the government’s withholding from the court of responsive documents,” the panel said. “The district court has, however, at the same time, concluded that such documents were, for the most part, properly withheld from plaintiffs under the FOIA.”

“We therefore hold that plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ counsel are not permitted to see the Sealed Order (ruling) because full disclosure of the Sealed Order (ruling) would compromise the authorized secrecy from plaintiffs of some of the information it contains,” the panel said.

The court sent the case back to Carney, directing him to rewrite his ruling to remove references deemed sensitive by the federal government before unsealing it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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