May 7, 2014
Judicial Watch today released a 17-page draft Vaughn Index document obtained from the U.S. Department of State on May 1, revealing that the Obama administration is still refusing to provide the full details of how top officials arrived at the now-discredited talking points released to the public following the deadly assault on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya. The new documents, containing more than 50 paragraphs of justifications to withhold information, were obtained in response to a Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) lawsuit (Judicial Watch, Inc., v. U.S. Department of State, (Civil Action No. 13-cv-00951 (EGS)) filed on June 21, 2013.
A Vaughn Index is a document prepared by a federal agency to justify and detail the withholding of material from public disclosure. The State Department sent the Benghazi draft Vaughn Index to Judicial Watch on May 1, 2014, in accordance with a court order of October 1, 2013.
The new document seeks to justify withholding internal exchanges within the Obama administration about the Benghazi attack dating back to a September 11, 2013, interagency email exchange containing redactions of an opinion offered on how to respond Benghazi attack updates. Though the State Department document repeatedly describes the material as “Unclassified” or “Sensitive But Unclassified,” it nonetheless justifies scores of extensive redactions and exemptions.
The majority of material in the draft Vaughn Index document pertains to “various drafts, and comments related to the drafts, of a proposed letter from United States Mission to the United Nations (USUN) Ambassador Susan Rice in response to various Congressional inquiries regarding the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya.” The internal debate about the Rice response apparently continued until October 30, 2012. The material obtained by Judicial Watch included the following descriptions related to redacted or exempted material:
- Document C05415305 is a seven-page inter-agency e-mail exchange consisting of sixteen messages between State Department and other U.S. Government officials [Rhodes, Brennan, McDonough . . .] on September 27 and September 28, 2012, with an original subject line “FOX News: US officials knew Libya attack was terrorism within 24 hours, sources confirm.” Subsequent e-mail subject lines were redacted. The document was originally designated SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. The Department withheld comments, opinions and assessments related to the formulation of a media strategy with respect to an ongoing sensitive matter under Exemption 5 pursuant to the deliberative process privilege…The information withheld under Exemption 5 is pre-decisional and deliberative in nature. The release of this information could reasonably be expected to chill the frank deliberations that occur when State Department and other U.S. Government officials are formulating public responses to address sensitive issues. The material is therefore exempt under FOIA Exemption 5, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5), pursuant to the deliberative process privilege.”
- Document C05415752 is a one-page intra-agency e-mail exchange, consisting of three messages, that is dated September 11, 2012, and bears the subject line “UPDATE: Clashes at U.S. consulate in eastern Libyan city (Reuters).” The Department withheld an opinion offered in response to an update regarding the Benghazi attack under FOIA Exemption 5 pursuant to the deliberative process privilege.
- Document C05415756 is a four-page intra-agency e-mail exchange consisting of ten messages between State Department officials, dated September 11, 2012, with the subject line “Libya update from Beth Jones.” [Jones was Assistant Secretary of State to Hillary Clinton at the time of the Benghazi attack.]
- Document C05415286 is a three-page intra-agency e-mail exchange, consisting of three messages, dated September 15, 2012, between various State Department personnel. This document … gives a readout and comments on an internal video conference held by U.S. Government officials on September 15, which discussed the security situation in parts of the Islamic world in the wake of a controversial film on the Prophet Mohammed.
- Document C05415951 is a three-page intra-agency e-mail exchange, consisting of six messages, between State Department and other U.S. Government officials, dated September 28, 2012 and originally designated UNCLASSIFIED. The subject line of the first five messages is “Statement by the Director of Public Affairs for National Intelligence Shawn Turner on the intelligence related to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.”
- Document C05415969 is a three-page intra-agency e-mail exchange, consisting of six messages, dated September 29-30, 2012. The subject line of the messages is “Benghazi Draft Response Letter- v14.” The Department withheld candid comments, opinions and assessments made during internal strategy discussions related to the drafting of an official response letter under FOIA Exemption 5 pursuant to the deliberative process privilege.
- Documents C05416026 is a two-page intra-agency e-mail exchange, consisting of three messages, dated September 30, 2012. The subject lines of the three messages are, beginning with the earliest in time, “Press Recommendation on Libya,” “Draft Response – Vl 7,” and “[Redacted] version of the response letter.”
On Tuesday, April 29, Judicial Watch released explosive new Benghazi scandal documentsprecipitating a Washington firestorm that placed the Obama White House on the defensive and prompted House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to call for a vote on a Select Committee on Benghazi. The documents included a newly declassified emailshowing then-White House Deputy Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes and other Obama administration public relations officials attempting to orchestrate a campaign to “reinforce” President Obama and to portray the Benghazi consulate terrorist attack as being “rooted in an Internet video, and not a failure of policy.” Curiously, the State Department says that it released this document to Judicial Watch in its “discretion,” despite it being allegedly subject to deliberative process and other exemptions being used to secret other documents.
The State Department’s withholdings seem at odds with President Obama’s transparency pledges. In one of his first official acts (on January 21, 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum on FOIA that includes the following:
Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.
All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.
“This document is a guide to the Obama administration’s Benghazi cover up,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “We will continue to battle this secrecy in court – transparency law requires the truth about government misconduct.”