Secrecy News

Gov’t Resists Court Review of State Secrets

It is “not appropriate” for a court to conduct its own independent review of evidence that the government asserts is protected by the state secrets privilege, attorneys for the government argued last week.

They were objecting to an order that was issued in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the “no fly” list in the case of Gulet Mohamed v. Eric Holder. On August 6, Judge Anthony J. Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia ordered the government to submit for in camera review a copy of all documents and testimony relevant to the case that it asserts fall under the state secrets privilege.

Instead, government attorneys asked Judge Trenga in an August 22 motion to reconsider his order “on the ground that the required submission [of assertedly privileged material] is not appropriate or necessary for evaluation of whether the state secrets privilege should be upheld or whether dismissal is necessary, in light of the information already provided to the Court on those issues.”

“The Government has provided… a thorough description of the harm to national security that would result from the disclosure of the privileged information. The additional submissions ordered by the Court would not assist in that determination,” they added.

But the kind of in camera review that the government attorneys objected to is actually among the “best practices” that should be adopted in all state secrets cases, according to a 2008 Senate Judiciary Committee report on the State Secrets Protection Act, a bill that was intended to regulate the use of the privilege.

The Act, introduced by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the late Sen. Arlen Specter, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, would have “instruct[ed] courts to avoid excessively deferential standards of review and to retain full control over privilege determinations.”

Among other requirements, the Act required that “The Government must make all evidence it claims is subject to the privilege available for the court to review…. If the Government refuses to turn over evidence or to provide a non-privileged substitute ordered by the court, the court will resolve the relevant issue of fact or law against the Government.”

The Act’s provision for in camera judicial review of privileged materials “makes crystal-clear that the court, not the executive branch, determines which items of evidence are privileged,” the Senate report said. “It requires the court to consider the actual evidence, rather than rely on Government affidavits or representations about the evidence, in making this determination.”

This is one of the steps needed to resolve “the crisis of legitimacy currently surrounding the [state secrets] privilege,” the Senate report said.

However, several Republican Senators on the Judiciary Committee disputed the need for the State Secrets Protection Act. They said in dissenting views appended to the report that the right balance had already been struck. The Act was never enacted into law and no other guidance on the use of the privilege has emerged from Congress.

Therefore, it will be up to Judge Trenga and his judicial colleagues to determine the proper scope and application of the state secrets privilege in each individual case.

Attorneys for the Plaintiff Gulet Mohamed said that they would oppose the government’s motion for reconsideration.


One thought on “Gov’t Resists Court Review of State Secrets

  1. The executive branch would dispense with court review altogether, but that was one of the elementary things that the idea of checks and balances was supposed to ensure. We shouldn’t have required a Senate report on this question for courts to know what to do in these situtations, as it is inherent in the very intent and structure of the Constitution. But the courts have no one to blame but themselves, having issued ruling after ruling for decades denying their own competence to judge so-called “political questions”, thereby cravenly abdicating their constitutional role. There you have it. Reap the whirlwind.

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