WASHINGTON – The CIA has adopted internal rules allowing it to define what constitutes a news organization and what doesn't, a Washington-based research group contended in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit by the National Security Archive, which operates the largest non-governmental library of declassified documents, says the spy agency has begun charging illegal search and duplication fees under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The act requires government agencies to waive fees if the request is considered to be a matter of public interest or contributes to public understanding of governmental operations. Waivers are generally granted to news organizations. Depending upon the scope of the request, search and duplication fees can run hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The archive has won rulings in federal district and appeals courts that require government agencies to treat it as a member of the news media. The archive shared an Emmy award last year for its work on a documentary dealing with President Nixon's 1972 trip to China, and it has won other major journalism awards.
It's also frequently clashed with the CIA. Earlier this year, the archive gave the CIA its "Rosemary Award" for the federal agency with the worst FOIA record. In its citation, the archive noted that the CIA had already begun to deny fee waiver requests based on its perception of their newsworthiness, and the archive predicted the action would "lead to wasteful re-litigation of a settled issue."
In its lawsuit, the archive said the CIA rejected immediate waivers for 42 FOIA requests over the last year, demanding in many cases to know how its requests were related to current events. The delayed FOIA requests dealt with issues such as U.S. assistance to Afghan rebels after the 1976 invasion by the Soviet Union and CIA daily briefings for the Truman White House.
The CIA told the archive that it wouldn't waive search and duplication fees because many of the requests wouldn't interest the general public. Thomas Blanton, the archive's executive director, said the response was illegal and potentially dangerous for the entire FOIA process.
"This means they get to decide what's news," Blanton said.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she hasn't heard of the CIA making similar responses to other news organizations, but she called the response "horrifying" and said it sets a bad precedent.
"It's not up to the CIA to decide what's newsworthy," Dalglish said.
A CIA spokesman said the agency would have no comment.