Exemption 7(F)

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This article is part of a series on Exemptions
This article is part of a series on Exemption 7

Introduction

Assuming the record in question is “compiled for law enforcement purposes,”[1] an agency must also justify why its disclosure would implicate at least one of the six specified harms identified in Exemption 7. Exemption 7(F) generally concerns records that could endanger an individual's life or physical safety.

Text of Exemption 7(F)

(b) This section does not apply to matters that are—[...]

(7) records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information [...] (F) could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual;

Applicability

Exemption 7(F) often been applied to withhold records in order to “protect government agents, witnesses, informants, and others who have participated in law enforcement investigations or proceedings.”[2] It is incumbent upon an agency to provide specific bases as to how releasing a record could endanger the life of a “small and specific group,” such as the “family members or coworkers of a named individual.”[3] The agency bears the burden of identifying “the subject of the danger . . . with at least reasonable specificity”. [4]

The exemption has also been successfully used, for example, to protect against the potential physical harm to “military personnel, [a company’s] employees, and civilians in Iraq” that could occur upon the release of the names of private security contractors in Iraq.[5] In that case, the court deferred to the agency’s explanation that releasing the names of the contractors could allow insurgents to make assessments of damage and vulnerability after attacking a particular company.[6]

In another case, a court held that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation could withhold maps depicting potential impact areas below two dams under this exemption where the agency demonstrated that terrorists could use them to attack the dams, endangering the safety of individuals living downstream from them.[7]

The Second Circuit rejected the government’s attempt to use Exemption 7(F) to withhold photographs depicting U.S. solders’ abusive treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan on the basis that their release would endanger U.S. troops and coalition forces, as well as civilians living in the two countries.[8] The court explained that the agency had failed to “identify at least one individual with reasonable specificity and establish that disclosure of the documents could reasonably be expected to endanger that individual,” and had instead discussed the possible harm to “some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.”[9]

Strategies for challenging Exemption 7(F) withholdings

Recent district court opinions on Exemption 7(F)

Recent district court cases regarding this topic from TRAC's FOIA Project. Visit their issue search page for more options.

References

  1. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)
  2. Am. Civil Liberties Union v. Dep’t of Def., 543 F.3d 59, 68, 80 (2d Cir. 2008), vacated on other grounds and remanded by Dep’t of Def. v. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 130 S.Ct. 777 (2009).
  3. Id. at 67-68.
  4. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 543 F.3d at 68, 71.
  5. Los Angeles Times Commc’ns, LLC v. Dep’t of Army, 442 F.Supp.2d 880, 899-900 (C.D. Cal. 2006).
  6. Id. at 899.
  7. Living Rivers, Inc. v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 272 F.Supp.2d 1313, 1321-22 (D. Utah 2003).
  8. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 543 F.3d at 71.
  9. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 543 F.3d at 71.