Despite the Obama administration’s surprisingly vigorous arguments that the case had to be dismissed to prevent disclosure of “state secrets,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today reinstated the case of Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, in which five victims of the CIA’s notorious “extraordinary rendition” (transfer to torture) program sued Jeppesen, a subsidiary of Boeing, for assisting the CIA with the rendition flights.
The three judge panel reversed the lower court’s decision, which had accepted the government’s argument (then made by the Bush administration) that allowing it to move forward would endanger national security.
The logic of the state secrets privilege, the appeals court panel writes (pdf), “simply cannot stretch to encompass cases brought by third-party plaintiffs against alleged government contractors for the contractors’ alleged involvement in tortious intelligence activities. Nothing the plaintiffs have done supports a conclusion that their ‘lips [are] to be for ever sealed respecting’ the claim on which they sue, such that filing this lawsuit would in itself defeat recovery.”
In other words, as the the American Civil Liberties Union had argued on behalf of the five victims, there is no reason to prevent the victims from having their day in court against a government contractor that they claim knowingly assisted in their torture. Pursuing those claims don’t have to reveal any secret evidence about the CIA program that could be dangerous to disclose.
This is a huge victory, not only for the five victims themselves, but also for many civil liberties advocates. The Obama administration first asserted the “state secrets” privilege in January, upsetting many of the president’s supporters who had hoped that his earlier promises of more open government would put an end to unnecessary secrecy.
Although the Obama administration didn’t change its mind, the federal court has now taken that argument out of its hands.
It remains to be seen whether Justice Department will seek re-hearing from the full court of appeals, or review by the Supreme Court.
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