Current Issue

Volume 85, Number 4

October 2010

“[We] Can Neither Confirm nor Deny the Existence or Nonexistence of Records Responsive to Your Request”: Reforming the Glomar Response Under FOIA

Nathan Freed Wessler

Under normal Freedom of Information Act procedures, an individual submits a request for records to a government agency and receives one of three responses: The agency may identify responsive records and release them, determine that there are no responsive records and inform the requestor of this fact, or identify responsive records but determine that they are exempt from disclosure under one of FOIA’s nine statutory exemptions. Since the 1970s, however, a fourth type of response has arisen: Agencies sometimes refuse to confirm or deny whether responsive records do or do not exist on the grounds that acknowledging their very existence itself would reveal secret information. This withholding mechanism, known as the Glomar response, creates special problems for FOIA requestors and receives remarkable deference from federal courts. This Note assesses the justifications for such deference, which are often rooted in separation of powers concerns. Arguing that the level of deference afforded is excessive, this Note posits that both separation of powers and institutional conflict of interest considerations support greater judicial scrutiny of agency invocations of the Glomar response. This Note concludes by offering proposals for judicial, legislative, and administrative reform of the Glomar response.