WASHINGTON (CN) - The CIA cannot hide behind the excuse that a researcher's request for all of its files on Nelson Mandela is overbroad to dodge a lawsuit against it, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
In 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral candidate Ryan Shapiro sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the CIA, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and the FBI looking for records mentioning former South African President Nelson Mandela, hoping to learn if the United States had a role in Mandela's 1962 arrest and imprisonment.
The CIA and NSA blocked his requests, with the CIA claiming the search would be "unreasonably burdensome" and the NSA refusing to confirm or deny the existence of Mandela-related records, a move known as a Glomar response.
Shapiro filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2014, claiming the agencies violated the Freedom of Information Act in skipping over his request.
The CIA filed a motion to dismiss the suit last June, though it backed away from its initial claim that looking for Shapiro's documents would be too time-consuming.
Instead, the agency suggested the amount of time it would have to spend looking for the files was irrelevant, because Shapiro had not described in enough detail the records he was after, according to Thursday's opinion.
But U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper disagreed, saying it is clear which records Shapiro would like to review.
Though he acknowledged a past court decision that held an agency does not have to release a whole document just because a search term is mentioned somewhere on it, Cooper said Shapiro's request would not require the CIA to spend much effort determining if a record was responsive.
Instead, the agency would just have to release any file containing Mandela's name, alias or an obvious reference to the civil rights legend, Cooper wrote.
Cooper was also not swayed by the agency's original claim that the search for Shapiro's records would be too burdensome, in part because the CIA refuses to file a declaration of how long it take to review the files, according to the opinion.
In the same opinion Cooper determined the NSA's Glomar response was appropriate with regards to the intelligence documents the NSA holds on Mandela, but that the agency misinterpreted Shapiro's initial request and must address the documents that are not related to whether Mandela was an intelligence target of interest to the NSA.
Jeffrey Louis Light, a Washington attorney who represents Shapiro, said the CIA's position in the case is standard.
The agency typically claims that any request looking for records relating to a specific individual is overbroad, because it can't determine what two documents are related in some nebulous manner.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment, citing a department policy of not commenting on ongoing cases.