The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) empowers individual requestors to compel the government to disclose its records. Various exceptions permit the government to withhold certain records regarding informants, but the Ninth Circuit recently explained some limits to those exceptions. In Pickard v. Dep’t of Justice, 2011 WL 3134505 (9th Cir., July 27, 2011), William Pickard filed a FOIA request with the DEA to get records regarding Gordon Todd Skinner, a DEA informant. The DEA denied his request by submitting a so-called “Glomar response” in which it neither officially confirmed nor denied the existence of Skinner as an informant. The 9th Circuit held that the DEA in effect had already “officially confirmed” Skinner as a confidential informant by eliciting testimony about and from him in open court at Pickard’s trial, and that therefore the DEA could not avoid the FOIA request in that manner. In other words, once the government relies on an informant–either through an agent’s testimony at trial regarding that informant or by using the informant as a witness–it cannot subsequently block a FOIA request by refusing to acknowledge the existence of the informant. This does not mean that the DEA necessarily has to produce records regarding its informants; it does mean, however, that it has to acknowledge the existence of such records and identify the specific FOIA exceptions that might permit nondisclosure.
This is an important decision for a number of reasons. As Judge Wallace explains in his concurrence, “the specific circumstances pursuant to which an informant’s status is deemed “officially confirmed” is a matter of first impression and great importance.” This is because the threshold question of whether a person is an informant at all may be a secret. Moreover, the decision clarifies that once the government decides to use an informant or his information at trial, it relinquishes much of its claim to confidentiality under FOIA. As Judge Wallace put it:
On the one hand, prosecutors frequently must rely on informants, who possess vital information, to prosecute dangerous criminals. On the other hand, the DEA and confidential informants have a different interest in secrecy and privacy than federal prosecutors. Yet, under the majority holding, an Assistant United States Attorney can eliminate that privacy interest by asking a single question–i.e., “Did you serve as a confidential informant”–in open court.