MANHATTAN (CN) -The CIA can withhold information from the public about its intelligence sources and the interrogation methods used on detainees, even if those methods were illegal, a federal judge has ruled.
"Courts are not invested with the competence to second-guess the CIA Director regarding the appropriateness of any particular intelligence source or method," U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union sought to obtain records detailing the treatment of detainees, deaths of detainees while in U.S. custody, and the names of those who were subject to secret detention or rendered to countries known to use torture.
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta had declared to the court that disclosure of the confidential information would result in "exceptionally grave damage to clandestine human intelligence collection and foreign liaison relationships."
The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2005, seeking to discover "what the CIA actually did" to certain detainees.
It argued that the agency should not be allowed to withhold information related to interrogation methods that were illegal. The ACLU also alleged that hundreds of hours of videotaped interrogations had been destroyed before they could be subpoenaed by the court.
Judge Hellerstein ruled for the government last year, deciding that "the case law and the plain language of the statutes are clear," but was asked by the ACLU to reconsider his oral opinion.
The civil liberties union claimed that the detention and interrogation programs that violated domestic and international law have been repudiated, and therefore are not considered "intelligence sources and methods" that are protected from a FOIA action.
President Obama issued an executive order on Jan. 27, 2009 that terminated the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program, ordered the closure of CIA detention facilities, and prescribed interrogation techniques for individuals in U.S. custody.
The judge said the dispute centered on whether the material sought constituted an "intelligence source [or] method" within the meaning of the National Security Act and the CIA Act.
"The Director of National Intelligence has 'very broad authority to protect all sources of information,'" the ruling states. "And the Director, not the judiciary, must determine 'whether disclosure ... may lead to an unacceptable risk of compromising the Agency's intelligence-gathering process.'"
Hellerstein rejected the ACLU's argument that the Office of Inspector General has already released a report describing enhanced interrogation techniques as applied to a detainee identified as Al-Nashiri. The judge said the CIA documents "go substantially beyond" the Inspector General's report.
"That some information concerning the interrogation and detention programs has been released does not mean that 'releasing the documents poses any less of a threat to national security,'" he wrote.
The judge granted the government's cross-motion for summary judgment.
"We are very dismayed by today's ruling, which invests the CIA with sweeping authority to conceal evidence of its own illegal conduct," ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement. "There is no question that the CIA has authority under the law to withhold information relating to 'intelligence sources and methods.' But while this authority is broad, it is not unlimited, and it certainly should not be converted into a license to suppress evidence of criminal activity."