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Brennan Center Sues Department of Justice for Terrorism Data

The Brennan Center for Justice, in conjunction with Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act against the Department of Justice for the release of non-sensitive court docket information for publicly filed terrorism-related prosecutions.

Published: August 9, 2018

On August 8, 2018, the Bren­nan Center­—in conjunc­tion with Charles Kurz­man, Professor of Soci­ology at Univer­sity of North Caro­lina at Chapel Hill—­filed a lawsuit under the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act (FOIA) against the Depart­ment of Justice (DOJ) forthe release of non-sens­it­ive court docket inform­a­tion for publicly filed terror­ism-related prosec­u­tions. This docket inform­a­tion is main­tained by DOJ and is read­ily avail­able in DOJ’s Legal Inform­a­tion Office Network System (“LIONS”) data­base, the prin­cipal method by which DOJ main­tains inform­a­tion about its invest­ig­a­tions and prosec­u­tions. The miss­ing docket inform­a­tion is neces­sary to track down all the cases in the LIONS data­base that prosec­utors have categor­ized as related to terror­ism. The DOJ denied the plaintiffs’ earlier request for the court docket inform­a­tion and then denied the appeal in full, refus­ing to release the reques­ted records.

The DOJ’s response to terror­ism, both domestic and inter­na­tional, is a crit­ical public policy issue. It implic­ates not just the safety of U.S. citizens and U.S. troops, but also core ques­tions about our consti­tu­tional demo­cracy (when and how to try terror­ists as crim­in­als), about our immig­ra­tion policy (who to let in and keep out of our coun­try), and about how we alloc­ate our resources (how many tax dollars should go toward fight­ing terror­ism).Yet, lack­ing docket inform­a­tion, the public cannot fully and effect­ively review court docu­ments to gain a compre­hens­ive picture of what conduct DOJ considers to be related to terror­ism, what charges DOJ brings in connec­tion with that conduct, or what sentences DOJ seeks in connec­tion with that conduct.

The inform­a­tion itself that plaintiffs seek is already public on each indi­vidual court docket, but DOJ has shiel­ded the one data­base that aggreg­ates such cases. DOJ’s basis for with­hold­ing the public docket inform­a­tion as main­tained in the LIONS data­base is essen­tially that the release of this mater­ial would consti­tute an unwar­ran­ted inva­sion of the personal privacy of third parties.  But any purpor­ted value in with­hold­ing this inform­a­tion is belied by DOJ’s own conduct in select­ively disclos­ing the very inform­a­tion plaintiffs seek.  For example, DOJ frequently issues press releases reveal­ing public docket inform­a­tion in connec­tion with prosec­u­tions that have not yet resul­ted in a convic­tion.  And DOJ select­ively discloses the names of defend­ants convicted of inter­na­tional terror­ism-related offenses. Indeed, DOJ’s prac­tice of select­ively releas­ing inform­a­tion about inter­na­tional terror­ism-related convic­tions, but not domestic terror­ism, makes the need for compre­hens­ive data even greater, as the select­ively released data permits politi­cians to cite poten­tially mislead­ing stat­ist­ics without confuta­tion.

As of April 2018, based on the publicly avail­able data, it appears that there have been 4,496 publicly filed cases since 2001 in the LIONS data­base included within one of the terror­ism-related program categor­ies. The large volume of these cases only under­scores the import­ance of the public’s abil­ity to access docket inform­a­tion to under­stand what their govern­ment is up to—and more specific­ally, how DOJ prosec­utes terror­ism and the degree to which its efforts are success­ful. 

Read the complaint here.

Read our original FOIA request here