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Holder’s Invocation of State Secrets Privilege Shields Government From Accountability

As Marcy Wheeler and Glenn Greenwald both pointed out over the weekend, Eric Holder on Friday once again declared that a case charging government lawbreaking must be dismissed because to let it continue would reveal important “state secrets.” That’s despite the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder not long ago announced that he’d be asserting the state secrets privilege much more sparingly, only when there are real, as opposed to speculative, state secrets at issue.

What’s particularly interesting about the assertion this time, though, is that it doesn’t appear to be simply covering up Bush-era government misconduct. The case, Shubert v. Bush, suggests an ongoing illegal government data-mining program that intercepts and listens in on a huge range of communications by U.S. citizens. The complaint (PDF), filed by ordinary U.S. citizens living in Brooklyn, N.Y., who communicate with people in different countries, is a fascinating read that charges the government is engaged in a bizarrely vast surveillance dragnet. On the one hand, it sounds completely paranoid; on the other hand, it could be true.

We may never know, however, because if Attorney General Eric Holder has his way, the case will be dismissed before the lawyers even get a chance to investigate. That’s because the government has “to protect against a disclosure of highly sensitive, classified information that would irrevocably harm the national security of this country,” as Holder said in a statement released late on Friday. Holder has once again invoked the so-called “state secrets privilege,” this time reluctantly, he says, because “there is no way for this case to move forward without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence activities that we rely upon to protect the safety of the American people.”

In fact, federal courts handle classified and sensitive information all the time without disclosing it publicly, by filing records under seal and requiring the lawyers involved in the case to obtain security clearance. It’s unclear why that wouldn’t work in this case. But one implication of Holder’s statement is that the spying and data-mining program is ongoing, so to reveal it would harm national security.

Another equally disturbing implication of Holder’s statement is that even if the government were engaged in blatantly illegal conduct that violates the U.S. Constitution, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Wiretap Act and other federal laws, there would be no way for any U.S. citizen targeted by the government’s illegal conduct to find out, let alone to hold anyone accountable.

As Ilann Maazel, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs who filed the case, told the National Law Journal earlier today, “In the Justice Department’s view, the government is free to violate any law” based on the assertion that national security is involved. “What the government is doing is avoiding any inquiry into the program.”

Judge Vaughn Walker in the Northern District of California, where the case is pending, has previously greeted the government’s assertion of the state secrets privilege with skepticism, and, in at least one case against an Islamic charity that claimed it was wiretapped, allowed the case to proceed.

We’ll be following closely to see what he does with this one.

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