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Trump Tweet Gets BuzzFeed Access to CIA Files on Syrian Rebels

Nov. 8, 2019, 3:28 PM

The CIA must adequately respond to BuzzFeed Inc.'s Freedom of Information Act request for information about payments to Syrian rebels because President Donald Trump already acknowledged them in a tweet, a federal district court ruled.

Because Trump’s tweet acknowledged some payments, the CIA can’t avoid responding to BuzzFeed’s request by saying it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a covert program to arm the rebels, the opinion by Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said.

Days after the Washington Post reported about the program, Trump tweeted that the story “fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.”

Thereafter, BuzzFeed and its reporter Jason Leopold requested access to records about CIA payments to the rebels. But the agency said it could neither confirm nor deny them.

The district court said the tweet alone didn’t constitute an official acknowledgment of a CIA program to arm the rebels and refused to enforce the FOIA request.

BuzzFeed filed another FOIA request asking the CIA for records pertaining to any payments to the Syrian rebels. This time, the court said the CIA couldn’t just refuse to confirm or deny the existence of the program.

BuzzFeed currently asks for records concerning any payments to the rebels, not specifically CIA payments, the court said. At the most, the president’s tweet acknowledged payments were made to the rebels, and they were ended, it said. At a minimum, it revealed Trump knew something about the payments, it said in the Nov. 7 decision.

Because the president acknowledged the payments, information about them isn’t exempted from disclosure under the FOIA, the court said, refusing to put its “imprimatur on a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible.”

Law Offices of Jeffrey Light represented BuzzFeed. DOJ represented the government.

The case is Leopold v. CIA, 2019 BL 428751, D.D.C., No. 19-978 (RC), 11/7/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bernie Pazanowski in Washington at bpazanowski@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com