Judge rules against Center for Public Integrity in cybersecurity lawsuit

Newsroom weighing options in pursuit of secret FEC document

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A U.S. District Court Judge has denied the Center for Public Integrity’s request for access to a taxpayer-funded study about cybersecurity vulnerabilities at the Federal Election Commission.

The court’s decision comes more than 13 months after the Center for Public Integrity sued the FEC for access to the security study, which the FEC commissioned following a Center investigation revealing how Chinese hackers infiltrated the FEC’s computer systems.

The 44-page document — known within the FEC as the “NIST study” — in part provides recommendations on how to fix the FEC’s problems and bring its computer systems in line with specific National Institute of Standards and Technology computer security protocols. The study cost $199,500 to produce.

“We vehemently disagree that the study should be withheld in its entirety,” Center for Public Integrity Chief Executive Officer John Dunbar said. “Doing so does the public a disservice given longstanding concerns over whether the FEC — an agency created by Congress to foster governmental transparency — is properly securing itself against external threats.”

In its lawsuit and the requests for the security study that preceded it, the Center noted that it had no quarrel with the FEC redacting sensitive passages that, if revealed, could compromise agency security.

The Center for Public Integrity is reviewing its options, including whether to appeal the decision last week from U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta.

The FEC successfully argued that the security study is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because its release “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.” Such disclosure, the agency continued, “could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

The FEC also argued that the study is exempt from disclosure because it consists of recommendations to the agency and, according to the agency, the factual descriptions in the study could not be separated from the recommendations.

In August 2015, the FEC initially refused Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal’s request, under the federal Freedom of Information Act, for a copy of the security study.

The Center for Public Integrity immediately appealed the decision of the agency, which is responsible for enforcing and regulating the nation’s election laws and providing timely public disclosure of fundraising and spending by thousands of federal political candidates and committees.

The FEC's commissioners — in 5-1 vote conducted during a closed-door meeting in late September — then rejected the Center for Public Integrity’s appeal.

Then-Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, voted to release the study. Then-Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, voted to withhold the study. Republican commissioners Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman, as well as Democrat Ellen Weintraub and independent Steven Walther, also voted to withhold it.

The Center for Public Integrity is one of the country's oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Its political reporting team focuses on how money influences politics and both the federal and state levels and frequently writes about the FEC’s activities and operations.

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