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Context of 'April 28, 2006: Government Intends to Use ‘State Secrets’ Clause to Quash AT&T Lawsuit'

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Chief Justice Fred Vinson.Chief Justice Fred Vinson. [Source: Kansas State Historical Society]The US Supreme Court upholds the power of the federal government’s executive branch to withhold documents from a civil suit on the basis of executive privilege and national security (see October 25, 1952). The case, US v Reynolds, overturns an appellate court decision that found against the government (see December 11, 1951). Originally split 5-4 on the decision, the Court goes to 6-3 when Justice William O. Douglas joins the majority. The three dissenters, Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson, refuse to write a dissenting opinion, instead adopting the decision of the appellate court as their dissent.
'State Secrets' a Valid Reason for Keeping Documents out of Judicial, Public Eye - Chief Justice Fred Vinson writes the majority opinion. Vinson refuses to grant the executive branch the near-unlimited power to withhold documents from judicial review, as the government’s arguments before the court implied (see October 21, 1952), but instead finds what he calls a “narrower ground for defense” in the Tort Claims Act, which compels the production of documents before a court only if they are designated “not privileged.” The government’s claim of privilege in the Reynolds case was valid, Vinson writes. But the ruling goes farther; Vinson upholds the claim of “state secrets” as a reason for withholding documents from judicial review or public scrutiny. In 2008, author Barry Siegel will write: “In truth, only now was the Supreme Court formally recognizing the privilege, giving the government the precedent it sought, a precedent binding on all courts throughout the nation. Most important, the Court was also—for the first time—spelling out how the privilege should be applied.” Siegel will call the Reynolds ruling “an effort to weigh competing legitimate interests,” but the ruling does not allow judges to see the documents in order to make a decision about their applicability in a court case: “By instructing judges not to insist upon examining documents if the government can satisfy that ‘a reasonable danger’ to national security exists, Vinson was asking jurists to fly blind.” Siegel will mark the decision as “an act of faith. We must believe the government,” he will write, “when it claims [the accident] would reveal state secrets. We must trust that the government is telling the truth.”
Time of Heightened Tensions Drives Need for Secrecy - Vinson goes on to note, “[W]e cannot escape judicial notice that this is a time of vigorous preparation for the national defense.” Locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and fighting a war in Korea, the US is, Vinson writes, in a time of crisis, and one where military secrets must be kept and even encouraged. [U. S. v. Reynolds, 3/9/1953; Siegel, 2008, pp. 171-176]
Future Ramifications - Reflecting on the decision in 2008, Siegel will write that while the case will not become as well known as many other Court decisions, it will wield significant influence. The ruling “formally recognized and established the framework for the government’s ‘state secrets’ privilege—a privilege that for decades had enabled federal agencies to conceal conduct, withhold documents, and block civil litigation, all in the name of national secrecy.… By encouraging judicial deference when the government claimed national security secrets, Reynolds had empowered the Executive Branch in myriad ways. Among other things, it had provided a fundamental legal argument for much of the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Enemy combatants such as Yaser Esam Hamdi (see December 2001) and Jose Padilla (see June 10, 2002), for many months confined without access to lawyers, had felt the breath of Reynolds. So had the accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui when federal prosecutors defied a court order allowing him access to other accused terrorists (see March 22, 2005). So had the Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002), like dozens of others the subject of a CIA extraordinary rendition to a secret foreign prison (see After September 11, 2001). So had hundreds of detainees at the US Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, held without charges or judicial review (see September 27, 2001). So had millions of American citizens, when President Bush, without judicial knowledge or approval, authorized domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (see Early 2002). US v. Reynolds made all this possible. The bedrock of national security law, it had provided a way for the Executive Branch to formalize an unprecedented power and immunity, to pull a veil of secrecy over its actions.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. ix-x]

Entity Tags: William O. Douglas, Zacarias Moussaoui, US Supreme Court, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Robert Jackson, Jose Padilla, Felix Frankfurter, Bush administration (43), Fred Vinson, Barry Siegel, George W. Bush, Hugo Black, Maher Arar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Electronic Frontier Foundation logo.Electronic Frontier Foundation logo. [Source: Flickr.com]The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties and privacy-advocacy organization, files a lawsuit against telecommunications giant AT&T for allegedly violating the law and the privacy of its citizens by cooperating with the National Security Agency in the NSA’s construction of what the EFF calls a “massive, illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans’ communications.” EFF lawyer Kevin Bankston says: “Our goal is to go after the people who are making the government’s illegal surveillance possible. They could not do what they are doing without the help of companies like AT&T. We want to make it clear to AT&T that it is not in their legal or economic interests to violate the law whenever the president asks them to.”
Unprecedented Access to Communications System - EFF alleges that as part of the NSA’s domestic spying program, AT&T has allowed the NSA direct access to the phone and Internet communications passing over its network, and has given the government “unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte ‘Daytona’ database of caller information—one of the largest databases in the world.” One of AT&T’s databases, nicknamed “Hawkeye,” contains 312 terabytes of data detailing nearly every telephone communication on AT&T’s domestic network since 2001, the lawsuit alleges. The suit goes on to claim that AT&T allowed the NSA to use the company’s powerful Daytona database management software to quickly search this and other communication databases. AT&T, the suit claims, is in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, federal wiretapping statutes, telecommunications laws, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The suit requests fines up to $22,000 for each AT&T customer, and punitive fines—damages that could potentially reach into the billions of dollars. The EFF lawsuit is one of over 30 lawsuits filed for similar reasons (see June 26, 2006). The lawsuit will survive a number of initial legal challenges by the Justice Department and AT&T, including AT&T’s contention that “whatever we did, the government told us to do” and therefore it should be immune from such lawsuits, and the Justice Department’s invocation of “national security” and the possibility of the revelation of “state secrets” (see March 9, 1953). EFF retorts, “In this country we follow the law, we don’t just follow orders.” Bankston tells a reporter, “If state secrecy can prevent us from preserving the rights of millions upon millions of people, then there is a profound problem with the law.”
Suit Alleges Criminal Actions, Does Not Challenge Government's Right to Wiretap - The lawsuit does not challenge the government’s right to electronically monitor legitimate terrorism suspects, nor does it challenge the judicial right to issue warrants for such surveillance. Rather, EFF writes: “Wiretaps on terrorists are allowed under the law, and this lawsuit is not challenging the wiretap laws. We have sued AT&T for breaking those laws—the telecommunications giant gave the government access to its communications switches and its huge databases of information on millions of ordinary Americans. These are AT&T customers who have not even been accused of affiliations with terrorists. Americans can be both safe and free: if the government truly believes it has cause to wiretap a suspect, it can order AT&T to provide information under FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]—for up to 72 hours before going to the court. But AT&T has no business providing direct access to the communications of millions of ordinary Americans, without the checks and balances of Congress or the courts.” [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 1/31/2006; Wired News, 1/31/2006]

Entity Tags: Electronic Frontier Foundation, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, National Security Agency, AT&T, US Department of Justice, Kevin Bankston

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department announces that it is invoking the “state secrets” clause to prevent a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against AT&T from going forward (see March 9, 1953 and January 31, 2006). The EFF is suing AT&T for compromising its customers’ privacy by colluding with the National Security Agency (NSA) in that agency’s domestic surveillance program. The government alleges that the lawsuit would reveal “state secrets” critical to “national security” if it continues. The Justice Department makes its initial filing in mid-May (see May 13, 2006). [US District Court, Northern District of California, 4/28/2006 pdf file; Klein, 2009, pp. 71]

Entity Tags: Electronic Frontier Foundation, AT&T, National Security Agency, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department files a brief with the US District Court of Northern California asking that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)‘s lawsuit against AT&T (see January 31, 2006) be dismissed on the grounds that it would breach “state secrets” vital to “national security.” The Justice Department publicly announced its intentions of asking that the lawsuit be dismissed on those grounds two weeks ago (see April 28, 2006). EFF is suing AT&T for compromising its customers’ privacy by colluding with the National Security Agency (NSA) in that agency’s domestic surveillance program. The lawsuit is Hepting, et al v. AT&T, often shortened in the media to Hepting v. AT&T. The government submits a number of secret documents to Judge Vaughn Walker as evidence, along with a heavily redacted document submitted for public perusal. Other documents include affidavits from the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, and the head of the NSA, Lieutenant General Keith Alexander. Some observers believe that Walker, a conservative appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush, will quickly comply with the government’s request. However, as AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009), who is working with EFF on the lawsuit (see Early January 2006), will later write, Vaughn is independent-minded and possessed of a “strong libertarian bent,” and will not be so prone to do the government’s bidding as some believe. [Klein, 2009, pp. 72-73] Walker’s first hearing on the brief will be held four days later (see May 17, 2006).

Entity Tags: John Negroponte, AT&T, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Keith Alexander, Mark Klein, US Department of Justice, Vaughn Walker, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) publishes a set of three non-classified documents secured from telecommunications giant AT&T by former AT&T technician and current whistleblower Mark Klein. Klein has used the documents to prove his assertions that AT&T colluded with the National Security Agency to illegally eavesdrop on Americans’ telephone and Internet communications (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009). The EFF has sued AT&T for violating its customers’ privacy, and Klein and the documents are key elements of its case (see February 23-28, 2006). After years of opposing their public disclosure and attempting to force their return (see April 6-8, 2006), AT&T acquiesced to the documents’ disclosure earlier this week after the EFF threatened to take the corporation to a federal appeals court. The documents were released in part by Wired News over a year ago against AT&T’s wishes (see May 17, 2006), and PBS also made them public as a part of a Frontline documentary. The Justice Department considered classifying the documents, then rejected the idea (see Late March - April 4, 2006). According to EFF’s Cindy Cohn, AT&T agreed to the disclosure of those portions to escape the embarrassment of arguing that documents available on the Internet for more than a year were secret. Wired’s Ryan Singel writes: “There are no surprises in the AT&T documentation… which consist of a subset of the pages already published by Wired News. They include AT&T wiring diagrams, equipment lists, and task orders that appear to show the company tapping into fiber-optic cables at the point where its backbone network connects to other ISPs at a San Francisco switching office. The documents appear to show the company siphoning off the traffic to a room packed with Internet-monitoring gear.” The EFF also releases a formerly sealed, signed declaration by Klein (see February 23-28, 2006) and a written analysis of the documentation by Internet expert J. Scott Marcus (see March 29, 2006). Marcus’s analysis, which had previously remained largely under court-ordered seal, is “the most interesting” of the releases, Singel writes. Marcus said the AT&T technical configuration allowed the NSA to conduct “surveillance and analysis of Internet content on a massive scale, including both overseas and purely domestic traffic,” and found it probable that AT&T had “15 or 20” secret facilities around the country, not just the few facilities of which Klein was aware. AT&T, with the Justice Department, is trying to prevent EFF’s lawsuit from continuing, insisting that such a trial would expose “state secrets” (see April 28, 2006 and May 13, 2006). Judge Vaughn Walker has already considered and dismissed that claim (see July 20, 2006); AT&T and the government hope an appeals court will find in their favor. Cohn tells Singel she hopes the documents will show the public that their case is based in fact and not speculation, and that the government’s claim of a national security risk is overblown: “It really paints them into a corner, how unreasonable their claims of state secrets are. I’m hoping [the document release] demonstrates we are right and know what we are talking about and that we don’t need much more to win our case. We are much closer than people think.” [Wired News, 6/13/2007]

Entity Tags: J. Scott Marcus, Cindy Cohn, AT&T, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mark Klein, National Security Agency, Wired News, Ryan Singel, US Department of Justice, Vaughn Walker

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) files a lawsuit against the National Security Agency (NSA), President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, former Cheney chief of staff David Addington, and other members of the Bush administration. The EFF claims the lawsuit is “on behalf of AT&T customers to stop the illegal unconstitutional and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records.” The EFF is referring to its ongoing lawsuit against AT&T and other telecommunications firms, which it accuses of colluding with the NSA to illegally monitor American citizens’ domestic communications (see December 15, 2005). The case, the EFF writes, “is aimed at ending the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans and holding accountable the government officials who illegally authorized it.” After January 2009, the newly elected Obama administration will challenge the lawsuit, Jewel v. NSA, on the grounds that to defend itself against the lawsuit, the government would be required to disclose “state secrets” (see Late May, 2006). The government used similar arguments to quash the EFF’s lawsuit against AT&T (see April 28, 2006), arguments which were rejected by a judge (see July 20, 2006). [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2009] The suit will be dismissed (see January 21, 2010).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Alberto R. Gonzales, AT&T, Bush administration (43), David S. Addington, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Obama administration, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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