WASHINGTON — In spring 2003, long before Abu Ghraib or secret prisons became part of the American vocabulary, two lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union noticed a handful of press reports about allegations of abuse of prisoners in American custody.
The lawyers, Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh, wondered: Was there a broader pattern of abuse, and could a Freedom of Information Act request uncover it? Some of their colleagues were skeptical. One made a tongue-in-cheek offer of $1 for every page they turned up.
Six years later, their document request is among the most successful in the history of public disclosure, with 130,000 pages of previously secret documents released to date.
The case has produced revelation after revelation: battles between the FBI and the military over treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay; autopsy reports on prisoners who died in custody in Afghanistan and Iraq; Justice Department memorandums justifying harsh interrogation methods; and descriptions of what happened inside the CIA’s overseas prisons.
“This is certainly a landmark case in every respect, including in the history of the Freedom of Information Act,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
The ACLU’s initial 2003 request produced only an innocuous set of State Department “talking points” before the organization, joined by four other advocacy groups, sued in June 2004.
Documents began to flow only after September 2004, when U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein criticized the “glacial pace” of the government’s response.
But the recent disclosures caused deep unease inside the agency. Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden said releasing documents designated as top secret could undermine cooperation from foreign intelligence services. “Our foreign partners may say there is no value to our promise in the future that ‘Don’t worry, we can keep this secret,'” he said.