NEW YORK -- Federal agencies must produce thousands of pages monthly of records pertaining to the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi because learning about his disappearance as quickly as possible is of "paramount importance," a judge said Tuesday.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense had told U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer that producing 5,000 pages monthly makes it impossible to respond in a timely fashion to other Freedom of Information Act requests.
Engelmayer ordered the agencies to get it done anyway, saying the disappearance of the Washington Post columnist and Saudi national was of "considerable public importance."
He said in a written opinion that a greater commitment of resources by the agencies was warranted because "there is paramount public importance and urgency" to a request for the records by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the legal team for the Open Society Foundations, created by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, was not seen alive again after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. President Donald Trump has called the killing "horrible" but said that Saudi Arabia has "been a terrific ally." He's also suggested he's satisfied with steps the country is taking to prosecute some of those involved in the death.
Anger in Congress over the Trump administration's close ties to the Saudis following the killing has led to legislation challenging U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. Twice, Trump has vetoed it, including at the end of July after Congress tried to stop weapons sales to the kingdom.
The State Department has said it estimates there are 288,000 pages that are potentially subject to the FOIA request. The Department of Defense has said it may have 22,637 relevant pages.
Engelmayer said the FOIA request had "obvious and unusual time-sensitivity" and the Defense Department's "seemingly antiquated review capacities" cannot dictate how fast he sets the pace for document turnover.
Representatives of the State Department had argued that 5,000 pages per month was not practical because its 60 to 73 workers sifting through records can only process between 18,000 and 21,900 pages per month for all of its FOIA requests. They said Engelmayer's requirement would substantially slow the processing of 98% of FOIA requests that are not in litigation, including over 170 expedited requests.
The judge noted Khashoggi's death was "front-page news" when the FOIA request was made in December, and the agencies did not respond to it until April.
"In the months since, Khashoggi's disappearance, and the facts or allegations regarding his killing in Saudi custody, have continued to be a matter of intense interest among the public, legislators, other policymakers and journalists," the judge wrote.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorney Amrit Singh with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said in a statement that the ruling was "a clarion call for accountability at a time when the Trump administration is doing everything possible to hide the truth on who is responsible for Khashoggi murder."