Time after time, in case after case in the So-Called War on Terror, we have seen the government invoke “state secrets,” as a means of denying defendants access to potentially exculpatory information in the government’s possession or as a means of denying civil plaintiffs access to information that would strengthen their own case at the government’s expense. As a result, some potentially innocent people have remained in custody for years, in many cases without trial or even charge. As a result, some meritorious lawsuits against government overreach have been tossed.
As a result, the country has both weakened and betrayed its own values. That’s bad enough.
But now? We come to find that for seven years, the government has been invoking “state secrets” to cover up a simple, understandable, and easy-to-fix paperwork error, albeit one with significant consequences. That error, compounded by the massive cover-up on the part of high-ranking officials in both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations, particularly Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder, kept an innocent woman named Rahinah Ibrahim on the U.S. government’s no-fly list for that period. For much of that period, the defense was invoked merely to prevent her from learning whether she was even on the list, let alone being able to do something about it.
Holder went so far as to tell the judge presiding over the case that this assertion of the state secrets privilege was fully in keeping with Obama’s much-ballyhooed 2009 executive branch reforms of the privilege, which stated the administration would invoke state secrets sparingly.
“Under this policy, the Department of Justice will defend an assertion of the state secrets privilege in litigation, and seek dismissal of a claim on that basis, only when necessary to protect against the risk of significant harm to national security,” reads an April signed declaration from the attorney general to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who presided over the Ibrahim litigation in San Francisco.
The state secrets privilege was first upheld by the Supreme Court in a McCarthy-era case and generally requires judges to dismiss lawsuits against the United States when the government asserts a trial threatens national security.
In his declaration, Holder assured Judge Alsup that the government would not be claiming national security to conceal “administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment” — an assertion that is now nearly impossible to square with the facts.
Way I read that, “now nearly impossible to square with the facts” means “a stone lie.”
Finally, her case was allowed to come to trial, a month before which the presiding judge, during a pretrial conference, told lawyers, “I feel like I have been had by the government.”
Time was, lawyers who intentionally misled judges suffered serious consequences to their cases, if not to themselves personally. As it was, after a five-day nonjury trial, the judge ruled for Ibrahim.
Here’s my question: If the government would illegally invoke “state secrets” for seven years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, to cover up a bloody paperwork error, what else is it covering up under the “state secrets” defense? Prosecution and/or punishment of innocent people? Ongoing torture? Extrajudicial assassinations? Massive waste, fraud and abuse in the national intelligence apparatus? At this point you’d have to be an idiot to bet on anything except all these and more.
Classification of material to cover up evidence of a crime is, itself, a federal crime. And it’s one with which not nearly enough people have been charged. But beyond that, judges who get played by the government this way should, when they figure out what’s going on, bring the gavel down on the government officials and lawyers involved so viciously that a century from now such officials and lawyers will speak of it only behind closed doors, with hushed voices, in the dark of night, the elderly cautioning the young.