Office of Legal Counsel secrecy under siege

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) exercises immense influence in the executive branch, but its opinions rarely enter the public domain. The Knight Institute and the Campaign for Accountability are using the courts to get the OLC to comply with the Freedom Of Information Act provision for “reading room,” requiring government agencies to disclose final legal opinions. They are requesting the release of twenty five -year-old opinions. the Knight Institute has also created a Twitter account to alert the public of current OLC opinions, generated generally without public notice. “We believe these efforts not only make the OLC’s opinions more accessible to journalists and the public than they’ve ever been,” write Stephanie Krent and Larry Siems of the Knight Institute, Columbia Journalism Review, May 11, 2022, “but also help build a broader understanding of the OLC’s role in determining the policies and actions of a wide range of executive-branch agencies. Twenty years ago, legal contortions by OLC lawyers green-lighted torture and other gross human rights violations in Iraq, Guantánamo Bay, and secret CIA prisons. That the authors of those torture memos escaped professional sanction for their misconstructions of US and international law only compounded an impression of the OLC as a secretive legal shop with the power to bend or distort the law for the White House or federal agencies.”

Senators Duckworth and Leahy introduced a bill in March to force the Justice Department to disclose all OLC opinion, excepting classified information. (First Branch Forecast, March 17, 2022)

For related FAC coverage, click here, here and here.