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More Skepticism of Obama’s New ‘State Secrets’ Policy

Last week I wrote about the serious limitations on President Obama’s new policy on the administration’s use of the “state secrets privilege” to dismiss cases charging the government with torture, warrantless wiretapping and other egregious abuses of executive power. Although the government has said it promises to invoke the privilege more sparingly, it’s still notably not saying it won’t invoke the privilege — which is intended to protect classified information that would endanger national security if disclosed — to dismiss entire cases charging government lawbreaking.

On Friday, I heard from Jonathan Freiman, a constitutional lawyer who represents Jose Padilla in a lawsuit against the government.

By promising to improve its policy for invoking the state secrets privilege, the Obama Justice Department last week announced, with much fanfare, that it will require the attorney general to sign off every time the Justice Department claims “state secrets” trump a victim’s charges. Well, as Freiman points out, that’s what the law has always required, at least in theory. And that hasn’t stopped the government from using the state secrets privilege in the past simply to cover up government wrongdoing.

“Ever since the Supreme Court first recognized it in U.S. v. Reynolds, the doctrine has required that any invocation of the privilege be supported with an affidavit from the head of the relevant government department,” wrote Freiman in an email. “If we expect the A.G. to be more likely than other high government officials to respect law – and less likely to invoke the state secrets privilege just to cover up government wrongdoing – then the new policy is a good thing.”

“But for most of the last decade there wasn’t much reason to put the A.G. on a pedestal above his cabinet peers,” Freiman wrote. Maybe things will change, he said, but “with the administration’s continuing opposition to real checks and balances, it’s possible that we’ll never really know whether they’ve changed.”

That is, of course, the problem with allowing the government to claim “state secrets” to dismiss a case without even letting the judge review the evidence to decide if it’s really a national security concern or not. After all, in the Reynolds case, when the government first claimed the privilege, insisting that release of information about a military plane crash would endanger national security, it turned out the Justice Department was just hiding the military’s own negligence — and denying the widows of the plane crash victims not only compensation, but any opportunity to find out what really happened.

Correction: I mistakenly identified Jonathan Freiman as representing Al Haramain Islamic Foundation in a previous version of this post. He represents Jose Padilla. Jonathan Eisenberg represents Al Haramain. This post has been updated to reflect the correction.

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