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Media Freedom Clinic Files FOIA Suit Against DEA for Footage of Raid That Killed Dozens

On Dec. 19, three students in the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) brought a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) action against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to compel the agency to release aerial surveillance footage of a 2010 raid in Jamaica that led to the deaths of more than 70 civilians, including one U.S. citizen. The students filed the suit on behalf of Mattathias Schwartz, a reporter who has covered the deadly raid for The New Yorker, under the supervision of Lynn Oberlander, the magazine’s general counsel.

The suit arose from FOIA requests that Schwartz had made with the DEA and other federal agencies for records pertaining to the raid. In 2010, the Jamaican government authorized its police and military forces to enter Tivoli Gardens, a neighborhood in the Jamaican city of Kingston, to arrest Christopher “Dudus” Coke, one of the country’s most powerful drug lords, and extradite him to the United States to face charges for trafficking in narcotics and firearms. Through his reporting, Schwartz discovered that the U.S. government had provided assistance by dispatching an aircraft to surveil the operation and pass intelligence on to the Jamaican forces on the ground. His piece in The New Yorker, “A Massacre in Jamaica,” prompted Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness to publicly acknowledge the U.S. involvement.

Although the DEA has acknowledged in response to Schwartz’s FOIA requests that it is in possession of six DVDs containing aerial surveillance footage of the raid, it has refused to release those DVDs, citing six exemptions under FOIA. MFIA argues in the complaint, filed in federal district court in the Eastern District of New York, that none of those exemptions are applicable to the footage sought. The DEA has until Jan. 22 to respond.

“One would think that the U.S. government would be interested in releasing as much information as possible about the death of a young U.S. citizen, along with dozens of Jamaicans, in an operation assisted by the U.S. government and carried out, to a large degree, at its behest,” Schwartz said. “This was not the case. My hope is that this lawsuit will prompt the U.S. government to live up to its legal and moral responsibilities.”

MFIA members James Shih ’13, Maxwell Mishkin ’14, and Christina Koningisor ’14 worked on the case. MFIA, an initiative of the Information Society Project, the Knight Law & Media Program, and the Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School, was founded by four Yale Law School students to defend the public’s right of access to government information and to support traditional and emerging forms of newsgathering. Through MFIA, Yale Law students work under the supervision of veteran media attorneys who volunteer their time pro bono on cases where private actors lack the resources to prosecute the public’s access rights. More information is available at http://www.law.yale.edu/intellectuallife/MFIA.htm.