US district court orders release of presidential policy directive

A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] on Tuesday ordered the release [opinion, PDF] of a foreign policy document by the Obama administration in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [government backgrounder]. In 2011, the Center for Effective Government (CEF) [advocacy website], formerly OMB Watch, filed a FOIA request for the release of the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD-6) [White House fact sheet], a document communicating administration policy relevant to national security and foreign relations topics. The request was denied, although no part of the directive was classified, and the government claimed no protection for the document save for the FOIA exemption protecting "presidential communications." The court ruled that the policy objectives behind the presidential communications exemption would not be met by expanding the class of protective documents to include those such as the PPD-6, where the information sought to be protected is a final, non-classified presidential directive distributed widely within the Executive Branch.

The purpose of FOIA is to "keep citizens in the know" about their government, granting US citizens the right to access information by and about the federal government. In October, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that FOIA does not require the FBI [official website] to disclose documents regarding its use of ethnic and racial information. That same month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed a FOIA lawsuit [JURIST report] to compel the federal government to disclose its policy for notifying criminal defendants that they have been surveilled under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) [text]. Recent commentary indicates that because records of US officials debating the use of drone strikes are categorically immune from FOIA requests and the president has the discretion to destroy such records at will, the National Security Council has the power to act with impunity [JURIST op-ed] in ordering drone strikes.

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