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US Gov't Wants To Use 'State Secrets' Claim To Kill Defamation Case (Not Involving US Gov't) Without Giving A Reason

from the secret-law,-secret-courts,-secret-reasons dept

We’ve written many times in the past about the DOJ’s abuse of the “state secrets” privilege to try to toss out basically any lawsuit that explores government surveillance, no fly lists and the like. But, now it’s taking the ridiculousness to a new level. In a NY court room, the DOJ is requesting a civil defamation lawsuit between two private parties be tossed out for state secrets reasons — but refuses to provide any reason for why it’s a state secrets issue. Basically, the government wants to be able to just claim state secrets and have everyone believe them, killing off a defamation lawsuit between two private parties.

If the judge agrees, it would mark the first time the government had invoked the state secrets privilege without publicly explaining its motivation for doing so.

And, of course, if the judge allows it, expect the DOJ to use this new-found power to continue to get all sorts of lawsuits dismissed without an explanation.

A ruling by U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos allowing use of the privilege – more closely associated with cases involving government surveillance, extraordinary rendition and espionage – without a public explanation could set a precedent for it to be used with minimal disclosures either to the public or to opposing parties in lawsuits.

The judge has at least expressed some skepticism about this, but it’s not clear how he’ll rule.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Byars hesitated during a hearing on Wednesday when Judge Ramos asked whether he had been able to find any cases in which the government had been allowed to use the state secrets privilege without providing a public explanation.

In the end, he did not dispute the claim by Restis’s lawyer Abbe Lowell that the Restis case would be the first to be dismissed under the privilege without the government submitting a public affidavit describing the nature of the information that needed to be kept secret.

“Public disclosure must not risk the secrets at issue,” Byars said, adding that not even Restis’s lawyers could be told about the secret information because the case is civil, not criminal, and “it’s not done.”

For the time being, Judge Ramos asked the government and both parties in the case to file some briefs about this, and I wonder if the judge will accept amicus briefs as well. The whole thing seems rather crazy. Not just is the government stepping into a private defamation lawsuit and asserting state secrets, but then trying to do so without any public explanation.

The defamation lawsuit was filed by a Greek businessman, Victor Retsis, against a non-profit group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), concerning claims UANI made, saying that Retsis had illegally exported oil from Iran. Retsis says this isn’t true and it’s defamatory. Even if this does involve dealings with Iran, it’s hard to see how state secrets should come into play here at all. It just feels like the DOJ is trying to hide something else that might come out in the process.

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Comments on “US Gov't Wants To Use 'State Secrets' Claim To Kill Defamation Case (Not Involving US Gov't) Without Giving A Reason”

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25 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

[conspiracytheory]

So you have an organization opposing Iran nuclear frolics and a Greek guy with supposedly illegal oil exports from Iran. Ooookay. Gentleman, take your bets.

[/conspiracytheory]

Another possibility that is closer to reality is that the US Govt is actually trying to explore this possibility. Imagine what Corporate America could do with such powers? Since justice is somewhat dead it would be like kicking the corpse?

Scary either way.

Anon says:

Wild-Ass Guess

My WAG is that the oil sale was permitted by the CIA/whatever, as a means to get something about Iran – perhaps the payment included shipping infected computers to Iran, perhaps they were tracking the money to see how it was transferred.

The alternative is that the information was leaked to the UANI by the CIA or Mossad and that will be the group’s defense when pressed. Maybe the CIA does not want its leak channel exposed. Maybe the “leak” was an inside agent in the Iranian oil company.

Scenarios, scenarios.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘The judge has at least expressed some skepticism about this, but it’s not clear how he’ll rule’

i should imagine it will depend on what incentives or threats are sent to him. if, however, he is more concerned with doing his job properly, he will definitely rule against the DoJ. if he doesn’t, the next move will be people charged, arrested and taken to court, then found guilty and sentenced without ever knowing what the hell they did in the first place!!

Anonymous Coward says:

stench of a government front

Scores of these “non-profit organizations” are essentially government front groups in disguise, and for the DOJ to step in and claim “state secrets” in a private lawsuit confirms that something is going on behind the curtain that Washington wants desperately to keep secret.

With a name like “United Against Nuclear Iran” — does anyone really believe that this could be anything other than a US/Israeli government-sanctioned operation? Even without googling it (and seeing that it’s run by a collection of neocon hacks and a former head of Israel’s Mossad) it’s stench should be obvious to anyone.

While these NPOs might not “technically” be government agencies, when both the people and the funding come straight out of Washington, it’s essentially a government operation in all but name. And therefore, the claim of “state secrets” would be only logical.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: stench of a government front

“And therefore, the claim of “state secrets” would be only logical.”

Yes, it would be. However, the troubling thing about this case isn’t the claim of state secrets itself. It’s that the claim is being used by the government in a case the government is not officially involved with, without providing the explanation for why their claim is appropriate. That’s never happened before, as far as I know.

If this is allowed to stand, then it opens a huge loophole through which the government can impose itself into pretty much any court case whatsoever and decide who wins or loses based on what it wants rather than the facts of the case.

Anonymous Coward says:

Streisand? Or meta-reverse Streisand?

And now, by using that claim, they focused attention on this case, in a classic Streisand Effect…

Or perhaps that was their intention, the case has nothing nefarious which could be revealed, and they are using the Streisand Effect on purpose to focus attention in this case as a way to divert attention from something else.

Anonymous Coward says:

It does sound like United Against Nuclear Iran, is a CIA front. It’s funny they got sued by a Greek guy.

The Greek guy probably did export oil from Iran, and in the process of suing UANI, he’s demanding UANI show where they got their evidence from.

Of course, UANI is sponsored by the CIA. Hence the government jumping out from behind the shadows and screaming ‘state secretes’ in a civil trial.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Why do people consider UANI to be a CIA front? That’s highly unlikely. While there are many CIA fronts all over the world, those tend to be “deep cover” operations (think of the CIA’s fake vaccination program in Pakistan) rather than openly political advocacy groups like UANI.

Though many of these quasi-government NGOs are doing the kind of things the CIA has traditionally done. And being officially “non-government” they have the freedom to do things that the government can’t.

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