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State Secrets Critics Slam New Obama Policy


President Barack Obama (WDCpix)

Although the Obama administration’s much-anticipated new policy on the use of the so-called “state secrets” privilege, announced this morning, has drawn some praise, civil liberties lawyers and other critics of the use of the privilege don’t think it solves the problem.

The state secrets privilege allows the government to conceal certain evidence in a court case that, if disclosed, would endanger national security by revealing “state secrets”. But who gets to decide what is a state secret and whether it will actually endanger national security has long been a point of contention. The Department of Justice, first under President Bush and then under President Obama, has invoked the privilege to ask courts to dismiss every single legal case that has come before them seeking compensation for torture or warrantless wiretapping by the government. That’s led critics to charge that the administration is trying to use the evidentiary privilege not to protect national security, but to conceal government wrongdoing and avoid embarrassment, or worse.

Today’s announcement says the government will use the privilege more sparingly, and requires the attorney general himself to sign off on its use. But the provision does not bar the government from using the privilege to try to dismiss cases alleging government wrongdoing.

“They don’t anywhere say, ‘we will not seek dismissal on state secrets grounds at the outset’” of a case, said Ben Wizner, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who’s come up against the privilege while representing victims of torture. “They say we’re going to make an effort to apply it as narrowly as possible. But that doesn’t change what they’ve been doing all along.”

What the Department of Justice has been doing all along is essentially what the Obama administration has done in one case Wizner’s working on, in which a victim of torture due to the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program sued Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, claiming the company was partly responsible for helping transport CIA prisoners to other countries to be tortured. The government claimed that allowing the case to go forward would reveal state secrets and endanger national security, and asked the court to dismiss it. Eventually, the ACLU won the right to proceed with the litigation, but the Obama administration in June asked the court of appeals to reconsider and dismiss the case.

“Any new policy will be an empty gesture if the administration continues to assert the same expansive theory of state secrets to dismiss cases brought by torture victims,” Wizner said Wednesday. “At the same time that they are rolling out this new policy with fanfare, they are asking the Ninth Circuit [Court of Appeals] to reverse its own decision and rehear the case because of state secrets.”

The Jeppesen case is one of several where the Obama administration has made the same expansive arguments that entire cases should be dismissed to protect state secrets, rather than simply excluding the particular piece of evidence that could actually endanger national security.

The real problem, say critics, is that the Obama administration is trying to use its new policy as a way to prevent the passage of legislation that will clarify the role of the executive versus the role of the courts.

“The Bush administration’s approach to state secrets was wrong-headed, causing significant public distrust and potentially shielding government wrongdoing and embarrassing mistakes behind a questionable legal doctrine,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in a statement released after the Justice Department’s announcement today. Feingold is a cosponsor of the proposed State Secrets Protection Act, which would provide guidance to federal courts considering cases where the government has asserted the state secrets privilege. “While I am pleased that the Obama administration recognizes that the Bush approach was a mistake, its new policy is disappointing because it still amounts to an approach of ‘just trust us.’ ”

Or as Wizner put it, “this is voluntary executive self-policing.” Legislation would “bind not just this president but the next one. That’s critical.”

What’s more, the new policy doesn’t really address the role of judges in cases where the privilege is invoked. The proposed legislation, on the other hand, “says courts cannot dismiss cases simply on the basis that the government claims the case involves state secrets. The legislation says courts are required to look at the underlying evidence” and decide for themselves. In many of these cases that have come up so far, it’s the government agency being sued — such as the CIA — that submits a statement to the court saying that the evidence that it committed a crime would endanger national security. “The court shouldn’t be able to rely just on an affidavit filed by the perpetrator,” said Wizner.

Under the proposed State Secrets Protection Act, if a court looks at the evidence and determines that some piece of it really does constitute a state secret — say, the identity of a CIA agent — then that evidence would be removed from the case. But before making that determination, the judge would have to explore every alternative, to see if other tools, such as protective orders, could be used to protect the evidence but still allow it to be used. If carefully and narrowly applied, says Wizner, only particular pieces of evidence that are not important to the litigation would have to be excluded. “No one’s saying we can litigate the identity of covert agents in civil cases,” says Wizner.

Ken Gude, Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the progressive Center for American Progress, expressed similar concerns about the Obama administration’s new state secrets policy. “My main concern is that the government should not be able to have a whole case dismissed simply by asserting a state secrets claim,” he said in an e-mail on Wednesday. “There may be instances when it’s simply not possible to proceed without certain evidence, but that should result from a subsequent decision after the plaintiffs have had a chance to plead their case without the material.”

That seemed to be what President Obama supported, too, when he first spoke about the state secrets privilege back in April. At an April 29 press conference, he called the state secrets doctrine “overbroad.” He went on to say that “searching for ways to redact, to carve out certain cases, to see what can be done, so that a judge in chambers can review information, without it being an open court — you know, there should be some additional tools, so that it’s not such a blunt instrument. And we’re interested in pursuing that. I know that Eric Holder and Greg Craig, my White House counsel, and others are working on that, as we speak.”

Today’s announcement is the policy that resulted from that process. But critics aren’t convinced it that it will actually accomplish what the president has promised.

As Feingold said today: “Independent court review of the government’s use of the state secrets privilege is essential. I urge the administration to work with Congress to develop legislation that sets reasonable limits on the privilege and will not be subject to change under each successive president.”

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