Resurrecting the Dubious State Secrets Privilege

Updated:
Posted in: Constitutional Law

In an unusual move, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a motion to make a private lawsuit simply disappear. While the U.S. Government is not a party to this defamation lawsuit—Victor Restis et al. v. American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc.—filed July 19, 2013, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Attorney General Eric Holder is concerned that the discovery being undertaken might jeopardize our national security.

This lawsuit is a fight between private parties: Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate, who claims he was defamed by United Against Nuclear Iran, a group lobbying against businesses it believes are facilitating Iranian nuclear ambitions. The group claims Restis has been doing embargoed business with Iran, but Restis denies the allegation. Holder’s Justice Department is not saying exactly what the problem might be with the discovery in this action; rather it has simply turned to the Bush II administration’s favorite post-9/11 device for protecting information by ending lawsuits: the “state-secrets privilege.”

When reporting this story, the New York Times noted that the use of the state secrets privilege had surprised attorneys across the political spectrum given Attorney General Holder’s efforts to distance his Justice Department from the tactics and practices of his immediate Bush II administration predecessors. Slightly contrary to the reaction of plaintiff Victor Restis’s lead attorney, Abbe D. Lowell, who claims there is “no precedent, literally, for what the government is attempting to do,” there are a handful of instances reaching back to the early 1900s, even before the state secrets privilege had been blessed by the U.S. Supreme Court, where the executive branch of government intervened to protect secret information. But calling for dismissal of a private lawsuit, based on the always dubious state secrets privilege, is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Precedents for Government Intervention in Private Litigation

The government’s argument for intervening in this lawsuit is technical and thin. They assert that pursuant to Rule 24(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides: “Intervention of right. Upon timely application anyone shall be permitted to intervene in an action: . . . (2) When the applicant claims an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action and he is so situated that the disposition of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede his ability to protect that interest, unless the applicant’s interest is adequately represented by existing parties.” The government says it has a unique and important interest in protecting the information set forth in its (classified) State Secrets Privilege Declarations.

Because it is such a terrible idea to expand this fuzzy and often abused privilege into the area of a private defamation lawsuit, I am almost reluctant to mention that Lou Fisher’s book, In The Name of National Security: Unchecked Presidential Power and the Reynolds Case, sets forth the long history of this privilege (or its earlier incarnations) being invoked when the government is not a party to the litigation. While there are some distinctions, Lou, a leading constitutional authority on national security law and separation of powers, found a case as early as 1912, Firth Sterling Steel Co. v. Bethlehem Steel Co., which is cited in Reynolds; in this case the federal government intervened in private litigation between two steel companies, when one company had been given secret drawings of Navy Department projectiles as part of a government contract. Similarly in Pollen v. Ford Instrument Co. (1939) the federal government intervened in a private lawsuit to block the disclosure of secret military drawings.

The strongest precedent in the government’s brief in the current case is the 1985 case of Fitzgerald v. Penthouse Intern., Ltd. Fitzgerald had sued Penthouse Magazine for an allegedly libelous article, but the U.S. Navy moved to intervene on the ground that the government had a national security interest which would not be adequately protected by the parties, so the government requested the action be dismissed, after invoking the state secrets privilege. The federal district court granted the motions and dismissed the case, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for Fourth Circuit affirmed. So there is precedent for this unusual action by the government in a private lawsuit, but the legitimacy of the state secrets privilege remains subject to question.

The State Secrets Privilege and the Reynolds Case Fraud

The Justice Department’s memorandum of law accompanying its motion to intervene states that once the state secrets privilege has been asserted “by the head of the department with control over the matter in question . . . the scope of judicial review is quite narrow.” Quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing this privilege in 1953, U.S. v. Reynolds, the brief adds: “the sole determination for the court is whether, ‘from all the circumstances of the case . . . there is a reasonable danger that compulsion of the evidence will expose military [or other] matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged.’”

In short, all the Justice Department need claim is the magic phrase—”state secrets”—after assuring the court that the head of department or agency involved has personally decided it is information that cannot be released. That ends the matter. This is what has made this privilege so controversial, not to mention dubious. Indeed, invocation by the executive branch effectively removes the question from judicial determination, and the information underlying the decision is not even provided to the court.

Lou Fisher looked closely at the state secrets privilege in his book In The Name of National Security, as well as in follow-up articles when the Reynolds case was litigated after it was discovered, decades after the fact, that the government had literally defrauded the Supreme Court in Reynolds, e.g., “The State Secrets Privilege: Relying on Reynolds.” The Reynolds ruling emerged from litigation initiated by the widows of three civilian engineers who died in a midair explosion of a B-29 bomber on October 6, 1948. The government refused to provide the widows with the government’s accident report. On March 9, 1953, the Supreme Court created the state secrets privilege when agreeing the accident report did not have to be produced since the government claimed it contained national security secrets. In fact, none of the federal judges in the lower courts, nor the justices on the Supreme Court, were allowed to read the report.

In February 2000, Judith Loether, a daughter of one of the three civilians killed in the 1948 B-29 explosion, discovered the government’s once-secret accident report for the incident on the Internet. Loether had been seven weeks old when her father died but been told by her mother what was known of her father’s death and the unsuccessful efforts to find out what had truly happened. When Loether read the accident report she was stunned. There were no national security secrets whatsoever, rather there was glaringly clear evidence of the government’s negligence resulting in her father’s death. Loether shared this information with the families of the other civilian engineers who had been killed in the incident and they joined together in a legal action to overturn Reynolds, raising the fact that the executive branch of the government had misled the Supreme Court, not to mention the parties to the earlier lawsuit.

To make a long story short, the Supreme Court was more interested in the finality of their decisions than the fraud that had been perpetrated upon them. They rejected the direct appeal, and efforts to re-litigate the case through the lower courts failed. As Fisher notes, the Court ruled in Reynolds based on “vapors and allusions,” rather than facts and evidence, and today it is clear that when it uncritically accepted the government’s word, the Court abdicated its duty to protect the ability of each party to present its case fairly, not to mention it left the matter under the control of a “self-interested executive” branch.

As Fisher and other scholars note, there is much more room under the Reynolds ruling for the court to take a hard look at the evidence when the government claims state secrets than has been common practice. Fisher reminds: “The state secrets privilege is qualified, not absolute. Otherwise there is no adversary process in court, no exercise of judicial independence over what evidence is needed, and no fairness accorded to private litigants who challenge the government . . . . There is no justification in law or history for a court to acquiesce to the accuracy of affidavits, statements, and declarations submitted by the executive branch.” Indeed, he noted to do so is contrary to our constitutional system of checks and balances.

Time to Reexamine Blind Adherence to the State Secrets Privilege

In responding to the government’s move to intervene, invoke state secrets, and dismiss the Restis lawsuit, plaintiffs’ attorney Abbe Lowell sent a letter to Judge Edgardo Ramos, the presiding judge on the case on September 17, 2014, contesting the Department of Justice’s ex parte filings, and requesting that Judge Ramos “order the Government to file a public declaration in support of its filing that will enable Plaintiffs to meaningfully respond.” Lowell also suggested as an alternative that he “presently holds more than sufficient security clearances to be given access to the ex parte submission,” and the court could do here as in other national security cases, and issue a protective order that the information not be shared with anyone. While Lowell does not so state, he is in effect taking on the existing state secrets privilege procedure where only the government knows what is being withheld and why, and he is taking on Reynolds.

Lowell states in his letter: “By relying solely upon ex parte submissions to justify its invocation of the state secrets privilege, especially in the unprecedented circumstance of private party litigation without an obvious government interest, the Government has improperly invoked the state secrets privilege, deprived Plaintiffs of the opportunity to test the Government’s claims through the adversarial process, and limited the Court’s opportunity to make an informed judgment. “ Lowell further claims that in “the typical state secrets case, the Government will simultaneously file both a sealed declaration and a detailed public declaration.” (Emphasis in Lowell’s letter.) To bolster this contention, he provided the court with an example, and offered to provide additional examples if so requested.

Lowell explains it is not clear—and suggests the government is similarly unclear in having earlier suggested a “law enforcement privilege”—as to why the state secrets privilege is being invoked, and argues this case can be tried without exposing government secrets. Citing the Fitzgerald ruling, Lowell points out dismissal is appropriate “[o]nly when no amount of effort and care on the part of the court and the parties will safeguard privileged material is dismissal warranted.”

No telling how Judge Ramos will rule, and the government has a remarkable record of prevailing with the deeply flawed state secrets privilege. But Lowell’s letter appears to say, between the lines, that he has a client who is prepared to test this dubious privilege and the government’s use of it in this case if Judge Ramos dismisses this lawsuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where that ruling would be reviewed, sees itself every bit the intellectual equal of the U.S. Supreme Court and it is uniquely qualified to give this dubious privilege and the Reynolds holding a reexamination. It is long past time this be done.

  • There is definitely a conspiracy between the government and all their “state-secrets privilege.” But who are we to correct them?