In 2014, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit demanding that the Justice Department disclose thousands of pages of documents from its investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture on detainees. The materials requested from the Justice Department totaled 1,719 pages, over three times the length of the executive summary that had been publicly released by the Senate Intelligence Committee about its own investigation into CIA torture. The DOJ’s materials, unlike the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, included interviews from over a hundred witnesses and an explanation of why no charges were filed as a result of the investigation.
The DOJ, then under the guidance of former attorney general Eric Holder, argued that every document from its investigation should remain secret because “disclosing them could affect the candor of law enforcement deliberations about whether to bring criminal charges.” The department told the court that the FOIA request could be denied due to an exemption for “attorney work product and deliberative materials.” So far, the New York Times has been unable to obtain the information it was seeking, leaving the details of the DOJ’s findings unknown to the masses.
Now, however, it appears that Holder has changed his tune. On October 14th, at the reception for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, he called for the public release of the very materials he had prevented the New York Times from accessing just last year, stating that he wished to “let people see how seriously we took the responsibility that we had to figure out whether criminal charges could be brought.”
Although his sincerity in the matter is questionable, given that he failed to push for the release of these documents while he actually had the power to do so as attorney general, Holder’s remarks are still noteworthy. Part of the DOJ’s investigation involved the use of grand juries, and the secrecy of grand jury records—particularly in cases where no charges are filed—is one of the principle tenets of the U.S. justice system. For a former attorney general to ask that this secrecy be compromised is a significant gesture at the very least. Holder justified his stance by claiming that in the case of the torture investigation, the importance of grand juries’ secrecy is “outweighed by the need of the nation to know that its leaders took this seriously.” Whether his call for greater transparency will actually be heeded remains to be seen, as do the potential consequences.