State Secrets, State Secrets Are No Fun

Despite Barack Obama’s frequent paeans to the value of transparency during the presidential campaign, his Justice Department has incensed civil liberties advocates by parroting the Bush administration’s broad invocations of the “state secrets privilege” in an effort to torpedo lawsuits challenging controversial interrogation and surveillance policies. Though in many cases the underlying facts have already been widely reported, DOJ lawyers implausibly claimed, not merely that particular classified information should not be aired in open court, but that any discussion of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” of detainees to torture-friendly regimes, or of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, would imperil national security.

That may—emphasis on may—finally begin to change as of October 1st, when new guidelines for the invocation of the privilege issued by Attorney General Eric Holder kick in. Part of the change is procedural: state secrets claims will need to go through a review board and secure the personal approval of the Attorney General. Substantively, the new rules raise the bar for assertions of privilege by requiring attorneys to provide courts with specific evidence showing reason to expect disclosure would result in “significant harm” to national security. Moreover, those assertions would have to be narrowly tailored so as to allow cases to proceed on the basis of as much information as can safely be disclosed.

That’s the theory, at any rate. The ACLU is skeptical, and argues that relying on AG guidelines to curb state secrets overreach is like relying on the fox to guard the hen house. And indeed, hours after the announcement of the new guidelines—admittedly not yet in effect—government attorneys were singing the state secrets song in a continuing effort to get a suit over allegations of illegal wiretapping tossed. The cynical read here is that the new guidelines are meant to mollify legislators contemplating statutory limits on state secrets claims while preserving executive discretion to continue making precisely the same arguments, so long as they add the word “significant” and jump through a few extra hoops. Presumably we’ll start to see how serious they are come October. And as for those proposed statutory limits, if the new administration’s commitment to greater  accountability is genuine, they should now have no objection to formal rules that simply reinforce the procedures and principles they’ve voluntarily embraced.