Sunday, November 18, 2007

Oops, Can We Get That Back?

My latest FindLaw column discusses Friday's Ninth Circuit ruling in Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Inc. v. Bush, which applied the state secrets privilege to forbid the plaintiffs in that case from showing that they were the targets of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Although I only briefly discuss the point in the column, the case features one very peculiar, indeed troubling, detail.

Al-Haramain sought to rely on a top-secret document that the government had inadvertently provided to Al-Haramain during the course of a separate proceeding concerning the freezing of its assets. The government wanted to freeze Al-Haramain's assets because of its alleged ties to al Qaeda. The Ninth Circuit opinion says that even though the government recovered the top-secret document, that only occurred after Al-Haramain's directors had made copies, which they were apparently permitted to keep---and for all that I know, translate into Arabic and post on their website.

This fact makes the government's need for secrecy at least a bit sketchy. To the extent that the state secrets privilege is needed to protect the actual contents of the top-secret document, it's a bit late to be worrying about that, as the government itself gave it directly to the people who could do the most damage with it. Accordingly, one can only conclude that the case is either wrongly decided or that litigation about the top-secret document would pose an unreasonable risk of revelations of other information that could jeopardize national security. The Ninth Circuit suggests that this is the rationale for its ruling, but only barely. On the crucial point, the opinion simply says, essentially: "We've seen this document in camera and it confirms the need for secrecy."

The Ninth Circuit opinion does not say whether the crackerjack lawyer or administrator who accidentally transmitted the document to Al-Haramain has been disciplined or even reprimanded. Given the usual m.o. of the Bush Administration, he or she could be rewarded with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, but only if the screw-up proves to be truly disastrous.

Posted by Mike Dorf

7 comments:

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

I have a few questions for anybody:

1. Is the “state secrets privilege” a constitutional doctrine, or are all of these precedents mostly statutory interpretations?

2. What happens when state secrets doctrine crosses the path of prior restraint precedent? For example, we know the NY Times reported the existence of the general spying program. What if the paper had mentioned this case specifically (having received the classified documents in question), reporting more than the mere general existence of the program? Would a hypothetical prior restraint answer from the courts control both scenarios – the press and civil litigation question?

My guess is that if a newspaper successfully defended the right to publish something, it would be odd to keep that public knowledge out of a civil suit to protect “state secrets.”

3. What if in some hypothetical case a newspaper won the right to publish something specific, but it decided NOT to as a moral choice. Suppose though, that the editor forwarded the information to the surveillance target for use in a civil case? Would the government have a state secrets case – because nothing was ever published?

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