Secret Law Isn’t the Public’s Fault

Officials in this administration have a funny way of blaming the victim. Did the CIA spy on Senate intelligence committee staffers who were investigating the agency’s torture program? No. OK, yes, you caught us — but the staffers were poking their nose into the CIA’s business. Are communities in some cities suffering from an uptick in crime rates? That must be because they were critical of police practices, and so the police are afraid to do their job. Are American Muslims disproportionately singled out for law enforcement scrutiny? It wouldn’t be necessary if they did a better job of identifying and rooting out the terrorists in their midst. Did a drone strike kill a 16-year-old boy who wasn’t on any target list but happened to be the son of alleged al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Aulaqi? I guess he “should have had a more responsible father,” as then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs helpfully explained.

At the annual conference of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on National Security Law, officials were at it again. Both the CIA’s General Counsel, Caroline Krass, and the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), Karl Thompson, observed that agencies are issuing fewer requests for formal OLC opinions and are seeking “informal,” unwritten advice from OLC instead. This trend undermines the public’s ability to obtain OLC opinions through FOIA requests. And, according to Krass, we have no one to blame but ourselves:

I do think one reason is a focus the office has gotten [in] the past 10 years or so in the public which has now led to Freedom of Information Act requests pretty much anytime the administration adopts a position in the context of domestic law or national security that could be [or] seems a little bit edgy or slightly controversial, immediately the request for the OLC opinion comes.

What were we thinking? Well, we might have had in mind OLC officials’ own acknowledgment that their opinions constitute the working law of the executive branch, and are binding on agencies in the same manner that a court’s decision would be. When the public expresses interest in a controversial court opinion, that isn’t cited as a reason to move the judicial system into the shadows. To the contrary, it’s well-understood that the public has a right to know how judges are interpreting the law. That’s true regardless of whether the law deals with the rights and obligations of private parties or (as is usually the case with OLC opinions) the authorities of the government. 

It’s high time we stop pretending that OLC opinions are merely attorneys’ advice, and thereby entitled to confidentiality. A private person is free to accept or reject her attorney’s advice. By contrast, as Thompson recognized, OLC opinions — even informal, unwritten ones — are “binding by custom and practice . … People are supposed to and do follow [them].” Moreover, in ordinary circumstances, it is no defense to criminal charges that the defendant’s lawyer gave bad advice. OLC opinions, on the other hand, confer effective immunity, as the Justice Department will not prosecute any official who acted in reliance on OLC’s conclusions.

The government nonetheless argues, and many courts have agreed, that OLC opinions are exempt from disclosure under FOIA because they are “deliberative” and “pre-decisional.” This assessment conflates two distinct decisions: the decision of an agency whether to adopt a course of conduct, and OLC’s decision regarding how to interpret the law. The latter decision may be one factor — along with other, non-legal factors, such as political viability, financial cost, and the existence of competing priorities — in the agency’s “deliberations” on the former. The agency ultimately must decide whether to move forward with a policy. But on the question of how the law should be interpreted, it is OLC, not the agency, which has the final word. If the agency were to issue a different legal interpretation, there is no question that OLC’s would take precedence, and the agency would be courting legal jeopardy by adopting a course of action in tension with OLC’s reading of the law.

Perhaps the solution is simply to require the government to abide by its own characterization. If OLC opinions are to be given the status of deliberative documents and/or legal advice, so be it; but in that case, they cannot be binding on any agency or official, nor can they mitigate any official’s criminal or civil liability (unless they genuinely negate a required state of mind). If, on the other hand, the government wishes to treat OLC opinions as authoritative and a shield against prosecution or civil suit, then they must be called what they are — law — and made available to the public. Until that happens, the public will remain a victim of secret law, and there will be no one but the administration to blame. 

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Goitein

Co-Director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Former Counsel to Sen. Russ Feingold Former Trial Attorney in the Federal Programs Branch of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice You can follow her on Twitter (@LizaGoitein).