CIA v. Sims,
471 U.S. 159 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

CIA v. Sims, 471 U.S. 159 (1985)

Central Intelligence Agency v. Sims

No. 83-1075

Argued December 4, 1984

Decided April 16, 1985*


Between 1953 and 1966, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) financed a research project, code-named MKULTRA, that was established to counter Soviet and Chinese advances in brainwashing and interrogation techniques. Subprojects were contracted out to various universities, research foundations, and similar institutions. In 1977, respondents in No. 83-1075 (hereafter respondents) filed a request with the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), seeking, inter alia, the names of the institutions and individuals who had performed the research under MKULTRA. Citing Exemption 3 of the FOIA -- which provides that an agency need not disclose

"matters that are . . . specifically exempted from disclosure by statute . . . provided that such statute . . . refers to particular types of matters to be withheld"

-- the CIA declined to disclose the requested information. The CIA invoked, as the exempting statute referred to in Exemption 3, § 102(d)(3) of the National Security Act of 1947, which states that

"the Director of Central Intelligence shall be responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure."

Respondents then filed suit under the FOIA in Federal District Court. Applying, as directed by the Court of Appeals on an earlier appeal, a definition of "intelligence sources" as meaning only those sources to which the CIA had to guarantee confidentiality in order to obtain the information, the District Court held that the identities of researchers who had received express guarantees of confidentiality need not be disclosed, and also exempted from disclosure other researchers on the ground that their work for the CIA, apart from MKULTRA, required that their identities remain secret. The court further held that there was no need to disclose the institutional affiliations of the individual researchers whose identities were exempt from disclosure. The Court of Appeals affirmed this latter holding, but reversed the District Court's ruling with respect to which individual researchers satisfied "the need-for-confidentiality" aspect of its formulation

Page 471 U. S. 160

of exempt "intelligence sources." The Court of Appeals held that it was error automatically to exempt from disclosure those researchers to whom confidentiality had been promised, and that an individual qualifies as an "intelligence source" exempt from disclosure under the FOIA only when the CIA offers sufficient proof that it needs to protect its efforts in confidentiality in order to obtain the type of information provided by the researcher.


1. Section 102(d)(3) qualifies as a withholding statute under Exemption 3. Section 102(d)(3) clearly refers to "particular types of matters" within the meaning of Exemption 3. Moreover, the FOIA's legislative history confirms that Congress intended § 102(d)(3) to be a withholding statute under that Exemption. And the plain meaning of § 102(d)(3)'s language, as well as the National Security Act's legislative history, indicates that Congress vested in the Director of Central Intelligence broad authority to protect all sources of intelligence information from disclosure. To narrow this authority by limiting the definition of "intelligence sources" to sources to which the CIA had to guarantee confidentiality in order to obtain the information not only contravenes Congress' express intention but also overlooks the practical necessities of modern intelligence gathering. Pp. 471 U. S. 166-173.

2. MKULTRA researchers are protected "intelligence sources" within § 102(d)(3)'s broad meaning, because they provided, or were engaged to provide, information that the CIA needed to fulfill its statutory obligations with respect to foreign intelligence. To force the CIA to disclose a source whenever a court determines, after the fact, that the CIA could have obtained the kind of information supplied without promising confidentiality, could have a devastating impact on the CIA's ability to carry out its statutory mission. The record establishes that the MKULTRA researchers did in fact provide the CIA with information related to its intelligence function, and therefore the Director was authorized to withhold these researchers' identities from disclosure under the FOIA. Pp. 471 U. S. 173-177.

3. The FOIA does not require the Director to disclose the institutional affiliations of the exempt researchers. This conclusion is supported by the record. The Director reasonably concluded that an observer who is knowledgeable about a particular intelligence research project, such as MKULTRA, could, upon learning that the research was performed at a certain institution, deduce the identities of the protected individual researchers. Pp. 471 U. S. 177-181.

228 U.S.App.D.C. 269, 709 F.2d 95, affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Page 471 U. S. 161

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 471 U. S. 181.

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