U.S. Citizen, Detained for Years in Yemen, Can't Find Out Why

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 30, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Sharif Mobley, a U.S. citizen, has been detained in Yemen for five years -- for reasons unclear to him, his lawyers, or the D.C. Circuit. Mobley claims he was plucked from the streets by armed men, shot, interrogated by the FBI and other federal agencies, and has remained in custody ever since.

Mobley sued to uncover the reasons behind his detention and other "proxy detentions" in Yemen. That information won't be forthcoming anytime soon, though, after the D.C. Circuit rejected his Freedom of Information Act claims.

Mobley's Detention

Mobley's story reads like something out of a pulp novel, even when recited by the D.C. Circuit:

Mobley, a United States Citizen, has been detained in Yemen since January 26, 2010. According to one of his attorneys, he was abducted from the streets of Sana'a, Yemen's capital city, by eight armed men who forced him into a van, shooting him twice in the process. Mobley had lived in Sana'a with his family since 2008, but in January 2010, he contacted U.S. Embassy officials to arrange for return to the United States. While in custody, Mobley claims that he was interrogated by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Defense Department, and other unspecified U.S. federal agencies. Although it remains unclear to Mobley why he was initially detained, he is being held on allegations that he shot two hospital guards -- one fatally -- during an attempted escape while he was being treated for injuries sustained during his abduction and detention.

Mobley, a former nuclear plant worker from New Jersey, is one of seven American prisoners arrested in Yemen. If the secret detention wasn't suspenseful enough, Yemen is currently in the midst of a civil war. Mobley's prison has been hit by airstrikes and he risks being sentenced to death in the near future.

Failed FOIA Claims

But as cloak and dagger as Mobley's story might be, this is a case about FOIA, the federal sunshine act that mandates disclosure of government documents to the public. Mobley filed two suits to force the FBI, CIA, and State Department to release information on his abduction, the agencies' involvement in his abduction, and the "wider pattern" of U.S.-sponsored proxy detentions.

Though some of the information was released, some information was withheld under FOIA exemptions. While disclosure is the general rule under FOIA, there are nine statutory exemptions, including properly classified information. The FBI and CIA refused to hand over information that was classified.

Mobley contended that the exemption had been "waived by official acknowledgement." Once classified information enters the public domain and is officially acknowledged, disclosure may be compelled even if the information remains classified. But here, the D.C. Circuit found, Mobley was unable to show any official acknowledgement. Though some documents were released by the Yemeni government, a foreign government "cannot waive a federal agency's right to assert a FOIA exemption."

Mobley's other arguments -- that the FBI did not search every source and that documents were misclassified -- were similarly unsuccessful. Mobley will remain in detention in Yemen for the time being, with no new information to explain his capture. The U.S., however, will not. The government closed its Yemeni embassy in February, following the fall of the government.

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