The U.S. government lost a bid Monday to block civil rights groups from obtaining CIA records of its internal investigation into abuse of detainees held by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a ruling from the bench, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein denied a government motion aimed at stopping an earlier order to turn over documents.
The decision was made in a lawsuit brought against the government by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups for what they said was the illegal withholding of records about U.S. military abuse of prisoners held in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and other locations.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, charged that the CIA and other federal agencies failed to comply with a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request filed by the groups in October 2003 and May 2004. The FOIA allows citizens access to public federal records.
“This [ruling] is extremely important,” said Lawrence Lustberg, a lawyer assisting the civil rights groups. “What we’re going to get are the fruits of the CIA’s own internal investigation.”
Government lawyers argued that the documents should not be turned over until the CIA completed its internal probe.
“What if it is never closed?” Hellerstein asked.
CIA unresponsive, groups say
The ACLU said it had obtained about 9,000 records from other agencies.
“To date, however, the CIA has not provided a meaningful response to the ACLU’s document request and has refused to confirm or deny the existence of specific documents concerning abuses,” the ACLU said.
The ACLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace filed suit in June. They sought records documenting torture and abuse that they said occurred after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In the suit, they said that after they filed their first FOIA request last year, numerous news stories and photographs documented mistreatment of prisoners held in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the groups received no documents, they filed a motion with the court in August seeking an order to force the government to comply with their requests. Hellerstein then ordered the government to start turning over papers.