The Bush administration responds with sometimes blanket secrecy to a request for documents on its warrantless wiretapping program.
Privacy groups and civil rights organizations sued the Justice Department last year, demanding it release documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The government refused to release most of the records, arguing that such a move could jeopardize national security and undermine terrorism investigations.
But U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. said Wednesday that reasoning is not good enough.
"While the court is certainly sensitive to the government's need to protect classified information and its deliberative processes, essentially declaring 'because we say so' is an inadequate" defense, Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy agreed with the Justice Department that many records should not be turned over, either because they were classified or because they were drafts of documents not covered by public records laws.
In other instances, Kennedy said the Justice Department must release a list of its documents and explain why each cannot be released. Kennedy had particularly strong words for the FBI, whose response he called "wholly inadequate."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kennedy said, has not explained what type of documents were being withheld, how many records it had and why each document is exempt from public records laws.
"Instead, FBI relies on vague, broad, wholesale claims of exempt status," Kennedy wrote.