Dec 082009
 

Cindy Cohn writes:

EFF filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit’s en banc review of Mohamed v. Jeppesen, a case brought by the ACLU challenging the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected the government’s argument that the case had to be dismissed at the outset due to the state secrets privilege. The panel decision is now being considered by a larger, en banc panel of the Court.

EFF notes that the government has made the same dangerous and overreaching state secrets arguments in the domestic warrantless wiretapping cases handled by EFF.

Read more on EFF.

Nov 102009
 

Kim Zetter of Threat Level reports on how the government’s motion to vacate prior rulings in Horn v. Huddle may seriously impact other pending cases such as al-Haramain v. Obama.

In Horn v. Huddle, the government settled a 15-year old lawsuit filed by a former DEA agent who claimed he was subjected to illegal eavesdropping. But as part of the settlement, Horn agreed not to oppose the government’s motion to vacate previous rulings in the case by the D.C. courts.

“The opinions will be a valuable resource for litigants and courts as these issues arise in other cases,” the lawyers wrote in their brief (.pdf) Friday.

[…]

The Justice Department is “willing to pay absolute top dollar [in the D.C. case] to get out from some very damaging opinions” says Jon Eisenberg, attorney for the plaintiffs in the Al-Haramain case. “They are desperate to make the decisions go away and to deprive me of the ability to cite those decisions in the future.”

Although district court opinions aren’t binding elsewhere, they are regularly published and cited in other cases.

The D.C. rulings could help convince the California court to let plaintiffs view and use the classified document in their case, Eisenberg says. He notes that the D.C. rulings could be particularly persuasive to the San Francisco judge in the Al-Haramain case because they come from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, head of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court until 2002, who is overseeing the coffee table case. The intelligence court is responsible for approving government requests for wiretaps and other types of surveillance in the U.S. in cases involving foreign spying and terrorism.

“When Judge Lamberth speaks on a matter of national security, people listen,” Eisenberg told Threat Level.

Read more on Threat Level.

Nov 052009
 

Kevin Bankston of EFF reports some good news in the House of Representatives:

After a long two days of legislative battle, the House Judiciary Committee just finished its second day of debate on Chairman Conyers’ PATRIOT reform bill, HR 3845 (see our wrap-up of the first day). Thanks in no small part to those of you who used our action alert, the Committee rejected almost all amendments that would have weakened the bill’s reforms and voted to recommend the bill to the House floor by a vote of 16 to 10.

Even better, the Committee kept going after it was finished with PATRIOT to consider Representative Nadler’s State Secret Protection Act (HR 984), which would reform the state secrets privilege that the government has repeatedly used to try and throw EFF’s warrantless wiretapping cases out of court. After an impassioned defense by Mr. Nadler, who described how the government has used the privilege like a “magic incantation” to cover-up wrongdoing and warned that state secrecy “is the greatest threat to liberty at present,” the bill passed with even better numbers than the PATRIOT bill, 18 to 12!

Read more on EFF.

Oct 312009
 

“The Department of Justice asserted the state secrets privilege in a case today to protect against a disclosure of highly sensitive, classified information that would irrevocably harm the national security of this country. I authorized this significant step following a careful and thorough review process, and I did so only because I believe there is no way for this case to move forward without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence activities that we rely upon to protect the safety of the American people.

“Last month, I outlined new policies and procedures containing a system of internal and external checks and balances that the Department will follow each time it invokes the state secrets privilege in litigation. We designed those procedures to provide greater accountability for the use of the privilege and to ensure that the Department invokes the privilege only to the extent that it is absolutely necessary to protect national security. The procedures require a thorough, multi-stage review and rely upon robust judicial and congressional oversight.

“The present case was reviewed under this new process. The Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the National Security Agency certified to the Department that disclosing information at issue in the case would jeopardize national security and provided classified information to support that conclusion. A review committee of senior Department officials, the Associate Attorney General, and the Deputy Attorney General all reviewed that information. Based on the recommendations from this review process, as well as my own personal review of the information provided, I concluded that we had no alternative but to assert the privilege to prevent the exposure of intelligence sources and methods.

“As part of our internal Department review, we specifically looked for a way to allow this case to proceed while carving out classified information, and ultimately concluded there was no way to do so. Much like previous litigation in which the government asserted the privilege, the core claims in this case involve questions about ongoing intelligence operations, and allowing it to proceed would disclose critical activities of high value to the national security of this country.

“We are not invoking this privilege to conceal government misconduct or avoid embarrassment, nor are we invoking it to preserve executive power. Moreover, we have given the court the information it needs to conduct its own independent assessment of our claim by filing a classified submission outlining the underlying facts and providing a detailed record upon which it can rely.

“The assertion of the state secrets privilege presents one of the most difficult challenges in balancing the American people’s right to information about actions their government takes and the government’s need to protect vital information that would compromise national security. Making the government more transparent and accountable is one of this administration’s top priorities, which is why my Department has issued reformed guidelines to govern Freedom of Information Act practices, released previously undisclosed Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memoranda, publishes on an ongoing basis this Department’s OLC memoranda whenever possible, and, indeed, adopted our more restrictive state secrets policy.

“The state secrets privilege also presents challenging questions of executive power. We have attempted to resolve those questions in a manner that ensures robust deliberation and allows for appropriate oversight by the courts and Congress. We believe the action we have taken in this case is the only responsible choice. Ultimately, the judicial system will determine whether we have drawn the line at the appropriate place, as is lawful and appropriate under our system of checks and balances. As always, we will respect the outcome of that process.”

Source: U.S. DOJ

Sep 302009
 

The New York Times editorial board has written an editorial on the Obama administration’s new guidelines for invoking the state secrets privilege, previously reported here and here.

The other day, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. issued new guidelines for invoking the state secrets privilege in the future. They were a positive step forward, on paper, but did not go nearly far enough. Mr. Holder’s much-anticipated reform plan does not include any shift in the Obama administration’s demand for blanket secrecy in pending cases. Nor does it include support for legislation that would mandate thorough court review of state secrets claims made by the executive branch.

Read the complete editorial here.

One of the existing cases that would not be affected by the new policy is Jewel v. NSA Commenting on the NYT editorial, Kevin Bankston of EFF writes:

The White House’s continuing silence about pending legislation to reform the state secrets privilege has caused the issue to stall in Congress. Even though State Secrets Protection Act legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate this past spring, Congress have been wary of considering those bills without knowing the White House’s position. Hopefully, this editorial from the New York Times will convince President Obama that now is the time to take a strong position in favor of those bills’ reasonable limits on government secrecy.

Sep 252009
 

Commentary on the DOJ’s new policy on invoking the “state secrets” privilege has suggested that although it is a slight improvement over the Bush administration policies, it does not go far enough.  Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News adds to the growing chorus of concerns:

[…]

More surprisingly, the policy seems to have fumbled the question of judicial review.  A Justice Department news release about the Attorney General’s memorandum declared promisingly that “in order to facilitate meaningful judicial scrutiny of the privilege assertions, the Department will submit evidence [justifying the privilege] to the court for review.”

But strangely, the memorandum itself says no such thing (as noted by Bill Leonard).  Questioned about the discrepancy, a Justice Department official said yesterday that the intent to submit the evidentiary record to the court for review, though left unstated by the Attorney General, was “a necessary inference” and he said that it would be done “in every case.”  Maybe so.

And over on The Volokh Conspiracy, Amanda Frost comments:

[…]

By voluntarily checking its own assertion of the privilege, the Administration may have slowed the momentum by these other two branches to establish greater restrictions on executive use of the privilege. For those, like myself, who are concerned about the privilege’s abuse in the hands of any executive, the new policy is a mixed blessing. Yes, I am happy to see the Administration voluntarily establish constraints on its use of the privilege, but I am hesitant to leave the privilege completely to the executive’s discretion. Ironically, then, the very policy shift that limits the privilege today may be the one that prevents courts and Congress from limiting abuse of the privilege in the future.

Sep 242009
 

Bob Egelko reports:

After years of wrangling over legal procedures, the lawyer for a defunct Islamic charity laid out his case Wednesday that former President George W. Bush’s secret wiretapping program was illegal – an argument that an Obama administration attorney refused to discuss.

“May the president of the United States break the law in the name of national security? … We’re asking this court to say, ‘no,’ ” Jon Eisenberg, lawyer for the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, told a federal judge in San Francisco.

[…]

Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who has rebuffed Bush and Obama administration requests to dismiss the suit, did not reveal his views on the legality of the program. But he told a government lawyer that Al-Haramain had presented strong evidence that it had been wiretapped and had the right to sue.

Read more on SFGate.  Paul Elias of Associated Press provides additional background on the case.

Court-related documents and files can be found on EFF’s site.

Photo credit:  Lea Suzuki/Chronicle