From The NY Times:
Facing a wave of litigation challenging its eavesdropping at home and its handling of terror suspects abroad, the Bush administration is increasingly turning to a legal tactic that swiftly torpedoes most lawsuits: the state secrets privilege.
In recent weeks alone, officials have used the privilege to win the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a German man who was abducted and held in Afghanistan for five months and to ask the courts to throw out three legal challenges to the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.
But civil liberties groups and some scholars say the privilege claim, in which the government says any discussion of a lawsuit's accusations would endanger national security, has short-circuited judicial scrutiny and public debate of some central controversies of the post-9/11 era.
The privilege has been asserted by the Justice Department more frequently under President Bush than under any of his predecessors — in 19 cases, the same number as during the entire eight-year presidency of Ronald Reagan, the previous record holder, according to a count by William G. Weaver, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso.
While the privilege, defined by a 1953 Supreme Court ruling, was once used to shield sensitive documents or witnesses from disclosure, it is now often used to try to snuff out lawsuits at their inception, Mr. Weaver and other legal specialists say.
"This is a very powerful weapon for the executive branch," said Mr. Weaver, who has a law degree and is a co-author of one of the few scholarly articles examining the privilege. "Once it's asserted, in almost every instance it stops the case cold."
Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at Wake Forest University who is studying the recent use of the privilege, said the administration's legal strategy "raises profound legal and policy questions that will be the subject of intense debate for the foreseeable future."
Some members of Congress also have doubts about the way the privilege has been used. A bill approved by the House Government Reform Committee would limit its use in blocking whistle-blowers' lawsuits.
"If the very people you're suing are the ones who get to use the state secrets privilege, it's a stacked deck," said Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, who proposed the measure and has campaigned against excessive government secrecy.
Yet courts have almost always deferred to the secrecy claims; Mr. Weaver said he believed that the last unsuccessful assertion of the privilege was in 1993. Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said, "It's a sign of how potent the national security mantra has become."
Under Mr. Bush, the secrets privilege has been used to block a lawsuit by a translator at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sibel Edmonds, who was fired after accusing colleagues of security breaches; to stop a discrimination lawsuit filed by Jeffrey Sterling, a Farsi-speaking, African-American officer at the Central Intelligence Agency; and to derail a patent claim involving a coupler for fiber-optic cable, evidently to guard technical details of government eavesdropping.
Such cases can make for oddities. Mark S. Zaid, who has represented Ms. Edmonds, Mr. Sterling and other clients in privilege cases, said he had seen his legal briefs classified by the government and had been barred from contacting a client because his phone line was not secure.
"In most state secrets cases, the plaintiffs' lawyers don't know what the alleged secrets are," Mr. Zaid said.
More recently the privilege has been wielded against lawsuits challenging broader policies, including the three lawsuits attacking the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program — one against AT&T by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco and two against the federal government by the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan and the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
In a filing in the New York case, John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, wrote that allowing the case to proceed would "cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States" because it "would enable adversaries of the United States to avoid detection." Mr. Negroponte said he was providing more detail in classified filings.
Those cases are still pending. Two lawsuits challenging the government's practice of rendition, in which terror suspects are seized and delivered to detention centers overseas, were dismissed after the government raised the secrets privilege.
One plaintiff, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained while changing planes in New York and was taken to Syria, where he has said he was held in a tiny cell and beaten with electrical cables. The other, Khaled el-Masri, a German of Kuwaiti origin, was seized in Macedonia and taken to Afghanistan, where he has said he was beaten and injected with drugs before being released in Albania.
The United States never made public any evidence linking either man to terrorism, and both cases are widely viewed as mistakes. Mr. Arar's lawsuit was dismissed in February on separate but similar grounds from the secrets privilege, a decision he is appealing. A federal judge in Virginia dismissed Mr. Masri's lawsuit on May 18, accepting the government's secrets claim.
One frustration of the plaintiffs in such cases is that so much information about the ostensible state secrets is already public. Mr. Arar's case has been examined in months of public hearings by a Canadian government commission, and Mr. Masri's story has been confirmed by American and German officials and blamed on a mix-up of similar names. The N.S.A. program has been described and defended in numerous public statements by Mr. Bush and other top officials and in a 42-page Justice Department legal analysis.
In the A.C.L.U. lawsuit charging that the security agency's eavesdropping is illegal, Ann Beeson, the group's associate legal director, acknowledged that some facts might need to remain secret. "But you don't need those facts to hear this case," she said. "All the facts needed to try this case are already public."
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said he could not discuss any specific case. But he said the state secrets privilege "is well-established in federal law and has been asserted many times in our nation's history to protect our nation's secrets."
Other defenders of the administration's increasing use of the privilege say it merely reflects proliferating lawsuits.
In all of the N.S.A. cases, for instance, "it's the same secret they're trying to protect," said H. Bryan Cunningham, a Denver lawyer who served as a legal adviser to the National Security Council under Mr. Bush. Mr. Cunningham said that under well-established precedent, judges must defer to the executive branch in deciding what secrets must be protected.
But critics of the use of the privilege point out that officials sometimes exaggerate the sensitivities at risk. In fact, documents from the 1953 case that defined the modern privilege, United States v. Reynolds, have been declassified in recent years and suggest that Air Force officials misled the court.
An accident report on a B-29 bomber crash in 1948 was withheld because the Air Force said it included technical details about sensitive intelligence equipment and missions, but it turned out to contain no such information, said Wilson M. Brown III, a lawyer in Philadelphia who represented survivors of those who died in the crash in recent litigation.
"The facts the Supreme Court was relying on in Reynolds were false," Mr. Brown said in an interview. "It shows that if the government is not truthful, plaintiffs will lose and there's very little chance to straighten it out."