Kissinger v. Reporters Committee,
445 U.S. 136 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Kissinger v. Reporters Committee, 445 U.S. 136 (1980)

Kissinger v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

No. 78-1088

Argued October 31, 1979

Decided March 3, 1980*

445 U.S. 136


Henry Kissinger served as an Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from 1969 to 1975 and as Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977. Throughout these periods, his secretaries monitored his telephone conversations and recorded their contents either by shorthand or on tape. The stenographic notes or tapes were used to prepare summaries and sometimes verbatim transcripts of the conversations (hereafter notes or telephone notes). In 1976, after the notes had been moved from Kissinger's office in the State Department to a private estate in New York, he donated them to the Library of Congress, subject to an agreement restricting public access to them for a specified period, and they were transported to the Library. Three requests for the notes were made to the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): (1) a request by a newspaper columnist (Safire), at a time when the notes were still located in Kissinger's State Department office, for any notes covering certain dates in which Safire's name appeared or in which Kissinger discussed information "leaks" with certain White House officials; (2) a request by the Military Audit Project, after the notes had been transferred to the Library of Congress, for all notes made while Kissinger was Secretary of State; and (3) a request at about the same time by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and others for notes made both while Kissinger was Presidential Assistant and while he was Secretary of State. The State Department denied the first request on the ground that the requested notes had been made while Kissinger was Presidential Assistant, and therefore were not agency records subject to FOIA disclosure. The second and third requests were denied on the grounds both that the requested notes were not agency records and that their deposit with the Library of Congress prior to the requests terminated the State Department's custody and control. During this period when he was no longer Secretary of State, Kissinger refused the Government Archivist's

Page 445 U. S. 137

requests for return of the notes. Suits were filed by the various FOIA requesters against Kissinger, the Library of Congress, the Secretary of State, and the State Department, seeking enforcement of the FOIA requests and a declaratory judgment that the telephone notes were agency records that had been unlawfully removed and were being improperly withheld. The District Court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor as to the notes made while Kissinger was Secretary of State, but denied relief as to the notes made while he was Presidential Assistant, finding that the former notes were "agency records" subject to disclosure under the FOIA, and that Kissinger had wrongfully removed them from the State Department in violation of the Federal Records Disposal Act. An order was entered requiring the Library of Congress to return the Secretary of State notes to the State Department and requiring the Department to determine which of the notes are exempt from disclosure under the FOIA and to provide the required materials to the plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. The District Court had no authority to order transfer of the notes, including those made while Kissinger was Secretary of State, from the Library of Congress to the State Department at the behest of the named plaintiffs. Pp. 445 U. S. 146-155.

(a) No provision of either the Federal Records Act of 1950, which establishes a records management program for federal agencies, or the complementary Records Disposal Act, which provides the exclusive means for record disposal, expressly confers a right of action on private parties, nor can such a right of action be implied. The language of these Acts merely "proscribes certain conduct," and does not "create or alter civil liabilities," Transamerica Mortgage Advisors, Inc. v. Lewis, 444 U. S. 11, 444 U. S. 19, and the Records Act also expressly provides administrative remedies for violations of the Act. Moreover, the legislative history of the Acts confirms that congressional silence as to a private right of action was purposeful, indicating that their purpose was not to benefit private parties, but solely to benefit the agencies themselves and the Federal Government as a whole. Thus, regardless of whether Kissinger had violated these Acts, Congress has not vested federal courts with jurisdiction to adjudicate that question upon suit by a private party, such responsibility being vested in the administrative authorities. Pp. 445 U. S. 147-150.

(b) Nor does the FOIA furnish the congressional intent to permit private actions to recover records wrongfully removed from Government custody. Under this Act, federal jurisdiction is dependent upon a showing that an agency has (1) "improperly" (2) "withheld" (3) "agency

Page 445 U. S. 138

records." Here, the State Department, a covered agency, has not "withheld" agency records within the meaning of the FOIA, since Congress did not mean that an agency improperly withholds a document that has been removed from the agency's possession prior to the filing of the FOIA request, the agency in such case having neither the custody nor control necessary to enable it to withhold. And an agency's failure to sue a third party to obtain possession is not a withholding under the Act. This conclusion that possession or control is a prerequisite to FOIA disclosure is reinforced by an examination of the Act's purposes, from which it is apparent that Congress never intended, when it enacted the FOIA, to displace the statutory scheme embodied in the Federal Records and Records Disposal Acts providing for administrative remedies to safeguard against wrongful removal of agency records as well as to retrieve wrongfully removed records. Pp. 445 U. S. 150-154.

(c) Under the circumstances of this case, where Kissinger had refused the Archivist's requests for return of the documents and he and the Library of Congress as his donee are holding the documents in question under a claim of right, the State Department cannot be said to have had possession or control of the documents at the time the requests were received, and therefore it did not withhold any agency records, an indispensable prerequisite to liability in a suit under the FOIA. Pp. 154-155.

2. Safire's request sought disclosure of documents that were not "agency records" within the meaning of the FOIA. While the FOIA makes the "Executive Office of the President" an agency subject to the Act, the legislative history makes it clear that the "Executive Office" does not include the Office of the President. Thus, since Safire's request sought notes made by Kissinger while acting in his capacity as Presidential Assistant, the requested notes were not "agency records" when they were made. Pp. 445 U. S. 155-157.

191 U.S.App.D.C. 213, 589 F.2d 1116, affirmed in part and reversed in part.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 445 U. S. 158, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 445 U. S. 161, filed opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part. MARSHALL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases. BLACKMUN, J., took no part in the decision of the cases.

Page 445 U. S. 139

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