The State Secrets Doctrine Needs Reforming

Monday, May 11, 2009

ON CONSECUTIVE days last month, a federal appeals court and the president of the United States revealed that they had come to the same conclusion: The state secrets doctrine, which has been used to shut down litigation that the government claims to be risky for national security, needs to be revamped.

During an April 29 news conference, President Obama called the doctrine "overbroad." "I think it is appropriate to say that there are going to be cases in which national security interests are genuinely at stake and that you can't litigate without revealing covert activities or classified information that would genuinely compromise our safety," Mr. Obama said, but he added, "There should be some additional tools, so that it's not such a blunt instrument."

Yet the Obama administration seized on the most blunt interpretation of the state secrets doctrine this year in a lawsuit brought by five men who sued Jeppesen DataPlan, claiming that the Boeing subsidiary helped the Bush administration carry out extraordinary renditions that led to their torture. The Obama Justice Department -- like the Bush administration -- argued that no part of the case could be litigated without the threat of compromising national security.

The day before the president's news conference, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit roundly rejected the administration's assertions. In an April 28 opinion, the court ruled that a trial judge should proceed with the case and evaluate individual claims of government secrecy. If a piece of evidence is deemed too sensitive, it may be stricken, but the plaintiff may still try to prove his case using unclassified evidence.

The 9th Circuit's decision squarely conflicts with a 2007 decision of the Richmond-based 4th Circuit to throw out the case of Khaled al-Masri, a German national who was seized in 2004 by U.S. operatives and allegedly tortured. The Justice Department could appeal the 9th Circuit decision, so as to allow the Supreme Court to resolve the conflict. But a better course would be to begin working with lawmakers to fine-tune the proposed State Secrets Protection Act.

The bill, originally championed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and recently reintroduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), would allow judges to privately review information that the government claims is too sensitive for public dissemination. If a specific piece of evidence was deemed too sensitive, the bill would allow the government to provide unclassified summaries of evidence to plaintiffs' lawyers with appropriate security clearances. If even that proved unworkable, the judge could exclude the evidence, but the entire case would not have to be dismissed.

The executive's prerogatives to protect national security must be respected, as must the rights of private litigants to have a fighting chance in court. Passage of the State Secrets Protection Act would ensure that these factors are weighed fairly no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

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