Opinion for the Court filed by McGOWAN, Circuit Judge.
McGOWAN, Circuit Judge:
Appellee in this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case seeks to compel disclosure of deleted portions of the transcript of a so-called "background" press conference held by former Secretary of State Kissinger
The District Court found that the State Department, in deciding to classify sections of the press conference transcript, had not taken into account procedural and substantive criteria established by the relevant Executive order. Having held that the material sought did not fall with any statutory exception to FOIA's disclosure requirements, the court did not think it necessary to examine in camera the material in question as requested by appellants. Instead, the court simply ordered release of the deleted passages to appellee.
Because of an almost incredible inattention by the State Department to the governing classification requirements for invocation of the FOIA national security exemption, we cannot fault the District Court's finding of failure to meet those requirements. However, in light of appellants' representations as to the highly sensitive nature of the material involved, we remand the case to the District Court for the purposes hereinafter appearing.
Some familiarity with the characteristics of the "background" press conference is essential to an understanding of the present controversy. The State Department background briefing is designed to permit dissemination of information to the public, while simultaneously avoiding the risks allegedly associated with direct quotation of high-ranking government personnel or official attribution of sensitive statements to government sources identified by name. Members of the press invited to attend such background briefings are expected to adhere to certain rules governing their reporting of the subjects discussed. The record does not reveal whether these rules have been reduced to writing, or whether any formal indication of assent thereto is demanded before individual newsmen are allowed to participate. In any event, the parties apparently agree that the rules are generally known and observed, and, in particular, were not directly violated by any reporters in attendance at Secretary Kissinger's December, 1974 conference.
The rules require that only paraphrase be used in reporting remarks made at background press conferences. In addition, information provided on a "background" basis may be attributed only to unnamed "senior State Department officials," not to any specific individuals. When information is provided on a so-called "deep background" basis, even its State Department origin must be concealed. In those instances, the press may refer only to "informed sources."
In November, 1974, President Ford and General Secretary Brezhnev met in Vladivostok for talks which led to an agreement outlining the future course of SALT. In the aftermath of the Vladivostok discussions, Secretary Kissinger conducted two background briefings, one on November 25, 1974, the other on December 3.
After the conference, a verbatim transcript was prepared by the State Department, and approximately six copies were made. No classification markings were affixed to any of these copies, and, indeed, no classification determination was made at the time the transcript and copies were produced. Copies not distributed elsewhere within the State Department were kept in the Department's Office of Press Relations in a safe approved for the storage of classified information. Access to a copy of the transcript was permitted only with the authorization of either the Director or Deputy Director of the Office of Press Relations. At most, two or three reporters actually saw the written text of the December 3 briefing.
In a letter dated February 19, 1975, appellee requested a copy of the December 3 background press conference. Prompted by this request, George Vest, Director of the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, undertook a review of the transcript. Mr. Vest concluded that the entire 59-page text of the December 3 briefing should be released to appellee, with the exception of three deletions totalling 44 lines (approximately two pages). In a letter dated March 5, 1975, Mr. Vest informed appellee that the deletions were "classified on the ground that attribution of these remarks to the Secretary of State could damage the national security." Although the March 5 letter did not disclose the precise status assigned to the deleted passages, Mr. Vest had in fact labelled all three excisions "Confidential."
Informed that the State Department would not comply completely with his FOIA request, appellee first pursued the administrative appeal to which he was entitled under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A). In a letter dated April 9, 1975, Carol Laise, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, announced that the Department's Council on Classification Policy had decided to sustain the partial denial of appellee's FOIA request. Tracking closely the language employed by Mr. Vest, the Assistant Secretary's letter explained that "[w]e have examined the passages deleted . . . and have concluded that their release in a form directly attributed to the Secretary of State could damage the national security."
On May 1, 1975, appellee filed a complaint in the District Court, alleging that the deleted material had not been properly classified pursuant to Executive Order 11652, and therefore could not qualify under FOIA's first exemption for protection from mandatory disclosure. Cross-motions for summary judgment were filed in November, 1975. On May 27, 1976, the District Court issued an order and memorandum opinion, granting appellee's motion for summary judgment and directing release of the disputed sections of transcript. Notice of appeal was filed on June 11, 1976, and, on June 14, this court granted a joint motion to stay disclosure pending appeal.
FOIA's first exemption immunizes from the Act's mandatory disclosure provisions those matters that are
5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1) (Supp. IV 1974).
As indicated previously (see note 4 supra), material may be classified "Confidential" only if "its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security." This criterion differs from that applicable before issuance of the currently effective Executive Order. Under Executive Order 10501, the predecessor to 11652, material could be classified "Confidential" whenever unauthorized disclosure thereof "could be prejudicial to the defense interests of the nation." In his statement accompanying the publication of Executive Order 11652, President Nixon underscored the importance of the shift in phraseology.
8 Weekly Comp. of Pres. Doc. 543-44 (March 13, 1972).
Section 7(A) of Order 11652 provides that "[t]he National Security Council shall monitor the implementation of this order." Pursuant to this authority, the NSC in May, 1972, issued a directive supplementing the Executive Order with further details. 37 Fed.Reg. 10053 (1972). Together, the Order and NSC Directive strictly limit access to classified information. Access may be granted only to persons with security clearances and only to persons the performance of whose official duties or contractual obligations requires such access.
Applying the above standards to the facts of the present case, the District Court correctly concluded that the press conference excerpts sought by appellee had not been properly classified in accordance with Executive Order 11652 and its implementing NSC Directive. Appellants have attempted to minimize the deficiencies of their classification process by stressing repeatedly that its objective was to prevent not disclosure of the substance of Secretary Kissinger's deleted remarks, but only public attribution of those remarks to the Secretary. We apprehend this distinction, but do not see it as affecting the propriety of the classification.
It is undisputed that reporters without security clearances and with no official duties necessitating access to classified information attended the December 3 briefing. No classification review was conducted either at the time of that briefing, or at the time the verbatim transcript of the press conference was prepared. No classification markings were affixed to the transcript copies stored in the State Department's Office of Press Relations. Appellants do not contest these facts. Nor do they deny that the NSC Directive requires assignment of security classifications and appropriate marking at the time documents containing classified information are produced.
When, in response to appellee's FOIA request, Mr. Vest at long last examined the press conference transcript for classification purposes, he decided that three passages should be labelled "confidential," because their attribution to the Secretary of State "could damage the national security." Letter from George S. Vest to Morton H. Halperin (March 5, 1975). When questioned at his deposition in July, 1975, following the filing of appellee's complaint, Mr. Vest reiterated that he had deleted certain portions of the transcript because their release "could damage national security." Later in the deposition, Mr. Vest described his behavior when confronted with appellee's FOIA request:
The classification standard employed by Mr. Vest was not the one dictated by Executive Order 11652. That Order permits material to be designated "Confidential" only if its unauthorized disclosure "could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security." Both the language of the March 5 letter to appellee and Mr. Vest's answers to questions asked at his deposition demonstrate convincingly that the determination to classify parts of the briefing transcript was made without reference to the criterion set forth in the governing Executive Order, apparently because the veteran State Department employee
Appellants maintain that Mr. Vest's deposition testimony reveals he followed a standard in fact more stringent than that required by Executive Order 11652. In support of this proposition, appellants cite Mr. Vest's statements that attribution of the deleted transcript passages to the Secretary of State "would be prejudicial to the national interest" and "would have had an injurious impact on the SALT negotiations." (Emphasis added.) Alternatively, it is contended that, even if the original classification was not effected in accordance with the Executive Order, subsequent reconsideration remedied any error that may have been committed.
Our response is twofold. First, the initial evidence of the "more stringent" test administered by Mr. Vest appears in his July, 1975 deposition.
The question remains as to whether the documentary material in issue should, be released to appellee forthwith. Appellants urge that the resulting injury to the national interest would be so great that this should not be done without further proceedings in the District Court in which they could press upon the court the dimensions of this danger. They suggest that, once aware of the harm involved in release, the District Court has available to it the alternative of affording appellants an opportunity to effect the classification anew in a manner fully and manifestly responsive to the requirements of the Executive Order.
It seems evident to us that the State Department failed utterly to anticipate and to identify the problems presented by the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in relation to the background press conference.
Having failed to follow the procedures established by their own branch of government, appellants ask us in effect to save them from the consequences of that failure by providing an exemption the Congress did not create. The power of a court to refuse to order the release of information that does not qualify for one of the nine statutory exemptions exists, if at all, only in "exceptional circumstances in which a court could fairly conclude that Congress intended to leave room for the operation of limited judicial discretion."
Nevertheless, we hesitate to order the release of material that would allegedly do grave damage to the national security without judicial scrutiny of the merits of that allegation. The responsibility of the courts to exercise some discretion in extreme circumstances is suggested by dicta in First Amendment cases involving prior restraint: "No one would question but that [when a nation is at war] a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops." Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697,
We therefore continue in effect our present stay of the judgment appealed from and remand the record to the District Court with instructions to examine the deleted portions of the transcript to determine the truth of appellants' allegations,
In approaching the remand proceedings it may be highly relevant for all participants to be reminded that this is a FOIA case with a difference. In camera examination will presumably reveal no information that has not already been made known to the world through the press except for an official admission that its source was the then Secretary of State. Throughout this litigation from 1975 up to the time of our taking this appeal under submission in the autumn of 1976, the Government has professed to be intent on protecting from disclosure not what was said at the press conference (which it characterizes as long since in the public domain) but the identity — and, more importantly, the official status — of the person who said it. It would appear, therefore, that a preliminary inquiry upon remand could usefully be made into the consequences for this case of the fact that the person in question no longer occupies an official position.
This court's stay of the District Court's judgment is continued, and the record is remanded to that court for further proceedings consistent herewith.
It is so ordered.
The District Court's findings on this score are as follows: