(CN) - The State Department must explain the secrecy surrounding its plans to give Mexican nationals Social Security benefits, a federal judge ruled, siding with a group of senior citizens.
Mexico and the United States reached a "totalization agreement" on Social Security benefits in 2004, but the U.S. Senate must still ratify it.
The Social Security Administration says such international agreements have been around since the 1970s, and that they aim to coordinate the U.S. Social Security program with the comparable programs of other countries.
An agreement with Mexico saves U.S. workers and their employers about $140 million in Mexican social security and health insurance taxes over the first five years of the agreement, according to a statement from the agency.
While the agreement with Canada came at a cost of $197 million to the U.S. system in 2002, the agency says that the Mexico agreement will cost the U.S. system about $105 million per year over the first five years.
Trying to learn more, TREA Senior Citizens League filed a Freedom of information Act request in July 2008 for 19 specific categories of records on the Mexico agreement created since 2001.
The nonprofit takes its name from The Retired Enlisted Association that established it as a special project in 1992.
Having waited nearly a year for the State Department to even acknowledge receipt of its request, TREA filed an administrative appeal in February 2010 because the agency still given a final determination about what it would produce.
Since it had not effectively denied the request, however, the State Department said that TREA's sole recourse was to file a federal complaint.
TREA did just that in August 2010. By March 2012, meanwhile, the State Department had sent the group nine letters about its search, which identified 124 unique, responsive documents.
The agency claimed withheld 21 records from this trove pursuant to FOIA exemptions, and 19 documents withheld either in whole or in part remained contested by the time it renewed a motion for summary judgment in 2012.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell refused Thursday to review the 19 documents in camera, but sided with the government as to its explanation for withholding just three of those records.
"Should the defendant continue to withhold these sixteen documents, the defendant will be required to submit supplementary declarations that address the deficiencies discussed above," he wrote. "Accordingly, if the defendant elects to continue to withhold these sixteen documents, it shall file jointly with the plaintiff, within twenty days, a proposed scheduling order to govern the timing of further proceedings in this action, including the filing of any further dispositive motions."
As opposed to an in camera review, a public agency explanation of its reasons for withholding would "foment government transparency," the decision states.