The ruling does not mean that any classified information will be disclosed, but it does over-rule the agency's claim that the unclassified parts of its so-called blue book -- the document it submits to Congress to justify its spending requests -- are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
The Federation of American Scientists filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Washington after the National Reconnaissance Office claimed its blue book was a highly sensitive "operational file" and therefore exempt from FOIA.
Operational files at the NRO are those records that "document the means by which foreign intelligence or counterintelligence is collected through scientific and technical systems."
But on Monday Judge Reggie Walton ruled that -- even if the files were operational -- they had been disseminated outside the agency and therefore did not qualify as exempt.
Nonetheless, because his ruling did not address the question of whether or not budget files could be operational, government transparency advocates remain concerned about what looks to them like a new tactic to get round FOIA.
Similar "operational file" exemptions are enjoyed by several other intelligence agencies, including the CIA, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency, noted the Federation of American Scientists' secrecy campaigner Steven Aftergood, but no agency had ever claimed that budget records were covered by it.
"If the operational file exemption were permitted to cover routine administrative documents such as budget records," he wrote in his e-newsletter Secrecy News, "then an enormous swath of unclassified government records could be unilaterally removed from the reach of the FOIA."
He noted that the Senate version of the pending 2007 Intelligence Authorization Act added a similar "operational files" exemption to the office of the new national director of intelligence.