U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the office must prove it has no authority other than helping and advising President Bush if it wants to have a lawsuit seeking access to its records dismissed
The ruling last week favored the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is trying to get Homeland Security records on proposals for a national driver's license and for a "trusted flier" program that relies on biometric information to identify airline passengers.
Kollar-Kotelly said the center "may inquire into the nature of the authority delegated to [the Office of Homeland Security] to determine whether or not it possesses independent authority."
David Sobel, attorney for the privacy group, called the ruling an intermediate victory over Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. "This is about opening a window into the activities of what has been, until now, a very secretive entity," he said.
Homeland Security tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, contending it doesn't have to release records because it is not an agency.
The privacy group said it did not have enough information to prove otherwise and asked for permission to find out how the office exercises its authority. The privacy group has until Feb. 24 to find out whether other agencies receive instructions or directions from Homeland Security. The office will become a federal department on Jan. 24.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the office is reviewing the opinion and working with the Justice Department to decide what to do next.