from the facts-in-evidence dept
President Barack Obama appears to look at the state secrets privilege in the United States the same way past Presidents have: it's a horrific injustice all the way up to the exact moment when it becomes available to them to use. For instance, after publicly campaigning against the Bush administration's use of state secrets exemptions to block litigation over the Patriot Act, he then leaned on them over something as relatively benign as copyright treaties. When it comes to state secrets, there are two related but slightly different issues at play. First, the government tends to be somewhat paranoid when it comes to classifying information in general. Second, but related, is the fact that state secrets are usually invoked domestically under the idea that United States citizens need to be protected against information coming out in the course of legal proceedings. What you end up with from those two issues is a government that keeps pertinent information hidden from its own constituency, often with that information being over-classified. The results of that intersection can often seem laughably paranoid.
Such is the case in a suit brought against the government by a Malaysian citizen, Rahinah Ibrahim, who had been a student at Stanford when she was denied air travel and detained in San Francisco in 2005, the apparent result of being on the no-fly list. U.S. District Judge William Alsup has sharply diverted from his peers in the case, challenging the government's assertion of state-secrets exemptions for evidence in the case.
In an order issued earlier this month and made public Friday, Alsup instructed lawyers for the government to "show cause" why at least nine documents it labeled as classified should not be turned over to Ibrahim's lawyers. Alsup said he'd examined the documents and concluded that portions of some of them and the entirety of others could be shown to Ibrahim's attorneys without implicating national security.
"After a careful review of the classified materials by the Court, this order concludes that a few documents could potentially be produced with little or no modifications to them," Alsup wrote in an April 2 order (posted here). "This order independently determines that in addition to correspondence between the parties, the two internal training documents are eligible for production to plaintiff’s counsel without implicating national security."For the most part, Alsup's reasoning appears as banal as it does just. Several of the documents requested by Ibrahim's lawyers are antiquated to the point that their being revealed should pose no danger to national security. This would still be important, since judges as a rule shy away from challenging the White House over classification on national security grounds. Alsup offers his reasons for the challenge, stating that the documents are highly pertinent to the case, that the suit on constitutional grounds is proper, and that the information contained within the documents cannot be obtained anywhere else. In other words, any minimal risk in exposing the documents is trumped by Ibrahim's rights as the plaintif in seeking justice.
But the real highlight of how silly this all can get is that the government is attempting to include correspondence between Ibrahim and the government as classified. This, Judge Alsup points out, simply cannot be the case. Driving the hypocrisy of the matter home is that Attorney General Eric Holder filed a declaration in the case, supporting the states-secrets claims. Holder, it should be noted, is an appointee of President Obama, who promised reforms in the use of state-secrets.
In summary, past administrations were vilified for doing exactly what Obama is doing now. That is, unless Judge Alsup's challenge succeeds.