(CN) - Animal rights activists may access papers on an investigation of an Auburn University lab, but any discussion of individual researchers is off limits, a federal judge ruled.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2006 related to an investigation of animal abuse at an Auburn University research lab.
The group said its undercover investigator documented animal abuses and the misappropriation of NIH funds over an eight-month period at the Auburn lab.
After receiving PETA's complaint, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released an investigatory report finding the allegations "partially valid."
The NIH never responded to the complaint, however, and refused
to either confirm or deny the existence of any responsive documents.
Such an answer is known as a Glomar response, named after the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a ship used in a classified CIA project to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific Ocean.
The D.C. Circuit deemed this "across-the-board" denial unjustified Friday, but said many of the documents PETA seeks are protected by a privacy exception.
While there is a "cognizable public interest in learning how NIH handles complaints concerning animal abuse and misappropriate of federal research funds," the researchers under investigation have a strong privacy interest in making sure their names remain confidential, Judge Srikanth Srinivasan wrote for the three-judge panel.
"In the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the public interest in understanding the agency's investigatory processes fails to outweigh the researchers' substantial interest in nondisclosure," the judge continued.
PETA's request seeks more, however, than documents on the investigation of the Auburn researchers.
Construing the FOIA request broadly, it could encompass "documents showing that NIH responded to complaints about the three researchers by conducting an investigation that did not target the researchers themselves," Srinivasan said.
Such documents would for example include any investigation into Auburn's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
These papers would fall outside the FOIA privacy exemption, but would "directly implicate the cognizable public interest in shedding light on NIH's investigatory processes," Srinivasan wrote. "In the circumstances of this case, however, we conclude that the public interest in understanding the agency's investigatory processes fails to outweigh the researchers' substantial interest in nondisclosure."