The 180-Degree Reversal of Obama's State Secrets Position

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Salon.com

The 180-Degree Reversal of Obama's State Secrets Position

From the Obama/Biden campaign website, mybarackobama.com, here was what the Obama campaign was saying -- back then -- about the State Secrets privilege:

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Apparently, the operative word in that highlighted paragraph -- unbeknownst to most people at the time -- was "the Bush administration," since the Obama administration is now doing exactly that which, during the campaign, it defined as "The Problem," the only difference being that it is now Obama, and not Bush, doing it.  For journalists who haven't bothered to learn the first thing about this issue even as they hold themselves out as experts on it, and for Obama followers eager to find an excuse to justify what was done, a brief review of the State Secrets privilege controversy is in order. 

Nobody -- not the ACLU or anyone else -- argues that the State Secrets privilege is inherently invalid.  Nobody contests that there is such a thing as a legitimate state secret.  Nobody believes that Obama should declassify every last secret and never classify anything else ever again.  Nor does anyone even assert that this particular lawsuit clearly involves no specific documents or portions of documents that might be legitimately subject to the privilege.  Those are all transparent, moronic strawmen advanced by people who have no idea what they're talking about.

What was abusive and dangerous about the Bush administration's version of the States Secret privilege -- just as the Obama/Biden campaign pointed out -- was that it was used not (as originally intended) to argue that specific pieces of evidence or documents were secret and therefore shouldn't be allowed in a court case, but instead, to compel dismissal of entire lawsuits in advance based on the claim that any judicial adjudication of even the most illegal secret government programs would harm national security.  That is the theory that caused the bulk of the controversy when used by the Bush DOJ -- because it shields entire government programs from any judicial scrutiny -- and it is that exact version of the privilege that the Obama DOJ yesterday expressly advocated (and, by implication, sought to preserve for all Presidents, including Obama).  

Go read any critic of Bush's use of the State Secrets privilege and those are the objections you will find (.pdf).  Kevin Drum last night explained it quite clearly:

By itself, this [the quantitative increase in the post-9/11 use of the privilege] is bad enough. But it's not the worst part of the Bush administration's use of the privilege.

Before 2001, the state secrets privilege was mostly used to object to specific pieces of evidence being introduced in court, something that nearly everyone agrees is at least occasionally necessary. But the Bush administration changed all that. In their typical expansive way, they decided to apply the privilege not just to individual pieces of evidence, but to get entire cases thrown out of court. What's more, they did this not merely when a state secret was incidental to some unrelated complaint, but when the government itself was the target of the suit.

Now Barack Obama is president, and unfortunately he's decided to continue the Bush administration's expansive reading of the privilege.

To underscore just what a complete reversal the Obama DOJ's conduct is, consider what Seante Democrats were saying for the last several years.  In early 2008, Sens. Kennedy and Leahy, along with Sen. Arlen Specter, sponsored the State Secrets Protection Act.  It had numerous co-sponsors, including Joe Biden.  In April, 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill, with all Committee Democrats voting for it, along with Specter.  The scheme restrictions imposed on the privilege by that bill was the consensus view of the pre-2009 Democratic Party.

The primary purpose of that bill is to bar the precise use of the State Secrets privilege which the Obama DOJ yesterday defended:   namely, as a tool to force courts to dismiss entire lawsuits from the start without any proceedings being held, rather than as a focused instrument for protecting specific pieces of classified information from disclosure. 

That bill explicitly provides that "the state secrets privilege shall not constitute grounds for dismissal of a case or claim" (Sec. 4053(b)).  Instead, the President could only "invoke the state secrets privilege as a ground for withholding information or evidence in discovery or for preventing the introduction of evidence at trial" (Sec. 4054(a)), and must submit each allegedly privileged piece of evidence to the court for the court to determine whether each item is legitimately subject to the privilege (Sec. 4054(d-e).  Where the court rules that a specific piece of evidence is privileged, it must attempt to find an evidentiary substitute (e.g., a summary of the evidence, a partially redacted copy, compelled admissions by the Government of certain allegations), and then -- only after all the evidence is gathered in discovery -- can the court dismiss the lawsuit only if it finds, in essence, that the plaintiffs cannot prove their case without reliance on the specific privileged information (Sec. 4055).

That has been the argument of Democrats for quite some time -- as well as civil libertarians such as Russ Feingold and the ACLU, both of whom endorsed that bill:  that what was abusive and dangerous about Bush's use of the State Secrets privilege was the preemptive, generalized use of this privilege to force dismissal of entire lawsuits in advance, even where the supposed secret to be concealed was the allegedly criminal activity itself.  And that is exactly the usage that the Obama administration is now defending. 

It doesn't take much time or energy to understand why that instrument is so pernicious.  It enables a Government to break the law -- repeatedly and deliberately -- and then block courts from subjecting its behavior to any judicial accountability, and prevent the public from learning about the lawbreaking, by claiming that its conduct generally is too secret to allow any judicial review.  Put another way, it places Presidents and their aides beyond and above the rule of law, since it empowers them to break the law and then prevent their victims -- or anyone else -- from holding them accountable in a court of law.  As Russ Feingold put it:

When the executive branch invokes the state secrets privilege to shut down lawsuits, hides its programs behind secret OLC opinions, over-classifies information to avoid public disclosure, and interprets the Freedom of Information Act as an information withholding statute, it shuts down all of the means to detect and respond to its abuses of the rule of law - whether those abuses involve torture, domestic spying, or the firing of U.S. Attorneys for partisan gain.

In defending the Obama administration's position (without beginning to understand it), The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder revealingly wrote -- on behalf of civil libertarians who he fantasizes have anointed him their spokesman:

It wouldn't be wise for a new administration to come in, take over a case from a prosecutor, and completely change a legal strategy in mid-course without a more thorough review of the national security implications. And, of course, the invocation itself isn't necessarily an issue; civil libertarians and others who voted for Obama did so with the belief that his judgment and his attorney general would be better stewards of that privilege than President Bush and his attorney generals (and vice president.)

We don't actually have a system of government (or at least we're not supposed to) where we rely on the magnanimity and inherent Goodness of specific leaders to exercise secret powers wisely.  That, by definition, is how grateful subjects of benevolent tyrants think ("this power was bad in Bush's hands because he's bad, but it's OK in Obama's hands because he is good and kind").  Countries that are nations of laws rather than of men don't rely on blind faith in the good character of leaders to prevent abuse.  They rely on what we call "law" and "accountability" and "checks and balances" to provide those safeguards -- exactly the type that Democrats, when it came to the States Secret privilege, long insisted upon before January 20, 2009.  

Democrats have large majorities in both houses of Congress; they ought to use it to legislatively bar the power that the Obama DOJ is now attempting to vest in the new President by enacting the legislation they spent all of last year insisting they favored.  Now that the Obama DOJ is seeking to acquire that power for its new President, the need for that law is more acute than ever.

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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