Secrecy News

Secrecy About Secrecy: The State Secrets Privilege

The Justice Department has not reported to Congress on the government’s use of the state secrets privilege since 2011, the Department acknowledged this week, contrary to a policy promising regular reporting on the subject.

In a 2009 statement of policy and procedures concerning the state secrets privilege, then-Attorney General Eric Holder said that “The Department will provide periodic reports to appropriate oversight committees of Congress with respect to all cases in which the Department invokes the privilege on behalf of departments or agencies in litigation, explaining the basis for invoking the privilege.”

In April 2011, the first such report was produced. It was one of several steps that were “intended to ensure greater accountability and reliability in the invocation of the privilege. They were developed in the wake of public criticism concerning the propriety of the Government’s use of the state secrets privilege.”

But the first periodic report on the state secrets privilege has turned out to be the last.

In 2014, John Carlin of the Department’s National Security Division affirmed the policy during his confirmation. “I understand that the Department’s policy remains to provide periodic reports to appropriate oversight committees of Congress regarding invocations of the State Secrets Privilege in litigation, and the Department provided its initial report to Congress on April 29, 2011,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I believe that the Department plans to submit another report in the near future.”

But no such report was ever submitted.

“No records responsive to your request were located,” the Justice Department stated this week in response to a FOIA request for any subsequent reports.

While Congress could request and require such a report at any time, it has not done so. And because the 2009 Holder policy on state secrets was “voluntarily” adopted by the Justice Department in response to public controversy, there was nothing to stop the policy from being unilaterally abandoned.