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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