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Context of 'June 2002: Former FBI Translator Files Whistleblower Suit Against Justice Department'

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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

Former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds files a lawsuit against the Justice Department. She alleges that the government leaked confidential information about her to the media in violation of the Privacy Act, and that it also violated her free speech and due process rights when it fired her in retaliation for her having reported possible illegal activity by co-worker Melek Can Dickerson and other security and management problems in the FBI’s language department. She is suing for monetary damages and reinstatement of her contract with the Bureau. [CNN, 7/7/2004] Dickerson and her husband Douglas Dickerson are subpoenaed in the case and the Justice Department is ordered by the court not to allow the couple to leave the country. [Anti-War (.com), 7/1/2004]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Melek Can Dickerson, Douglas Dickerson, Sibel Edmonds

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

FBI translator Melek Can Dickerson and her husband Douglas Dickerson leave the country. Douglas, a US Air Force major who procures weapons from the US for various Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has been reassigned to Belgium to work on a NATO-related assignment. [Anti-War (.com), 7/1/2004; Vanity Fair, 9/2005] The Dickersons had been recently subpoenaed in Sibel Edmonds’ lawsuit against the FBI (see June 2002) and are the subject of three separate investigations: one by the Air Force Office of Special Investigation, one by the Justice Department, and the third by the Senate Judiciary Committee. [Anti-War (.com), 8/22/2005] The FBI, under court order not to allow the couple to leave the country, requires that Douglas Dickerson swear under oath that he will return if requested by the court. [Anti-War (.com), 7/1/2004; Vanity Fair, 9/2005]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Melek Can Dickerson, Douglas Dickerson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

At the request of FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft files a declaration invoking the “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953) to block FBI translator Sibel Edmonds’ lawsuit against the government from being heard in court. [New York Observer, 1/22/2004] The Justice Department insists that disclosing her evidence, even at a closed hearing in court, “could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the foreign policy and national security of the United States.” The “state secrets privilege,” derived from English common law, has never been the subject of any congressional vote or statute. Normally, the privilege is used to block the discovery of a specific piece of evidence that could put the nation’s security at risk. But Ashcroft’s declaration asserts that the very subject of her lawsuit constitutes a state secret, thus barring her from even presenting her case in court. The text of Ashcroft’s declaration is classified. [Vanity Fair, 9/2005] The Justice Department’s Director of Public Affairs, Barbara Comstock, says in a press release: “To prevent disclosure of certain classified and sensitive national security information, Attorney General Ashcroft today asserted the state secrets privilege.… The state secrets privilege is well established in federal law… and allows the Executive Branch to safeguard vital information regarding the nation’s security or diplomatic relations. In the past, this privilege has been applied many times to protect our nation’s secrets from disclosure, and to require dismissal of cases when other litigation mechanisms would be inadequate. It is an absolute privilege that renders the information unavailable in litigation.” [US Department of Justice, 10/18/2002; Siegel, 2008, pp. 201]

Entity Tags: Robert S. Mueller III, Sibel Edmonds, Barbara Comstock, John Ashcroft, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Attorney General John Ashcroft again invokes the “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953), forbidding former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds from testifying in a case brought by hundreds of families of September 11 victims (see October 18, 2002). [New York Times, 5/20/2004] Four weeks earlier, on April 26, the Justice Department had obtained a temporary court order preventing her from testifying before the court. [Independent, 4/2/2004; Government Executive, 4/30/2004] The families, represented by the law firm Motley-Rice, allege that a number of banks and two members of the Saudi royal family provided financial support to al-Qaeda. [New York Times, 5/20/2004] Ashcroft’s order retroactively classifies information it provided Senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy (see June 17, 2002) concerning former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds and her allegations. Among the documents to be “reclassified” are the follow-up letters sent by Grassley and Leahy to the FBI which they posted on their website. Their staff members are prohibited from discussing the information, even though it is now public knowledge. The order bars Edmonds from answering even simple questions like, “When and where were you born?” “What languages do you speak?” and “Where did you go to school?” [New York Times, 5/20/2004; Boston Globe, 7/5/2004; Asia Times, 8/6/2004; Vanity Fair, 9/2005] In response to the announcement, Grassley says: “I think it’s ludicrous, because I understand that almost all of this information is in the public domain and has been very widely available. This classification is very serious, because it seems like the FBI would be attempting to put a gag order on Congress.” [New Republic, 6/7/2004]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Sibel Edmonds, Charles Grassley, Patrick J. Leahy

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Sibel Edmonds.Sibel Edmonds. [Source: Linda Spillers/ Getty]US District Judge Reggie B. Walton, appointed by George W. Bush, dismisses Sibel Edmonds’ lawsuit (see June 2002) against the Justice Department, accepting the government’s argument that allowing the case to proceed would jeopardize national security [Associated Press, 7/6/2004; CNN, 7/7/2004] and infringe upon its October 2002 declaration (see October 18, 2002) that classified everything related to Edmonds’ case. Walton refuses to explain his ruling, insisting that to do so would expose sensitive secrets. “The Court finds that the plaintiff is unable to establish her First Amendment, Fifth Amendment, and Privacy Act claims without the disclosure of privileged information, nor would the defendants be able to defend against these claims without the same disclosures… the plaintiff’s case must be dismissed, albeit with great consternation, in the interests of national security,” Walton says in his ruling. [CNN, 7/7/2004] Walton never heard evidence from Edmonds’ lawyers. [Associated Press, 7/6/2004; Associated Press, 7/7/2004]

Entity Tags: Reggie B. Walton, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sibel Edmonds

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The DC federal appeals court rules in favor of the attorney general’s use of the state secrets privilege (see March 9, 1953, October 18, 2002 and May 19, 2004) to prevent the court from hearing Sibel Edmonds’ lawsuit (see June 2002). Lawyers for the Justice Department had addressed the judge behind sealed doors. [Vanity Fair, 9/2005]

Entity Tags: Sibel Edmonds, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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