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Context of 'October 19, 1951: Government Appeals ‘Banshee’ Ruling, Argues that Judiciary Has No Right to See Classified Documents from Executive Branch'

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Initial Associated Press reports of a crash in Georgia of a B-29 that had been on a test flight for the Air Force’s secret Project Banshee (see October 6, 1948) acknowledge that “the plane had been on a mission testing secret electronic equipment which RCA developed and built under an Air Force contract… Full details of the plane’s mission were not disclosed.… The Air Force would say only that the bomber was engaged in ‘electronic research on different types of radar…’” Local papers have a bit more detail, with survivor accounts hinting at confusion and some contradictions between their versions of events and that being given out by official Air Force spokesmen. Later reports from the Air Force will downplay the B-29’s involvement in Project Banshee. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 56-58]

Entity Tags: Associated Press, US Department of the Air Force, Radio Corporation of America, Project Banshee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Phyllis Brauner and Elizabeth Palya, who both lost their husbands in the “Project Banshee” B-29 crash (see October 6, 1948), file a civil action lawsuit against the US government in regards to the crash. The lawsuit claims that the US Air Force, in the person of the pilot and military crew members of the B-29, caused the deaths of their civilian husbands by “the negligence and wrongful acts and omissions of the officers and employees” of the US. The widows’ lawyer, Charles Biddle, asks the government for $300,000 per family. A third widow, Patricia Reynolds, will join the lawsuit in September 1949. One of the biggest issues surrounding the case is the lawsuit’s request that Biddle and his lawyers be given access to the official accident reports, which the government will claim cannot be revealed because they may contain classified information (see October 18, 1948 and August 7-8, 1950). Biddle’s promise that no one else will see the reports makes no impression on the government’s lawyers. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 100-101]

Entity Tags: Elizabeth Palya, Charles Biddle, Patricia Reynolds, Phyllis Brauner, US Department of the Air Force, Project Banshee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Weeks after the Justice Department refused to make accident reports of a 1948 B-29 crash (see October 6, 1948) available to the plaintiffs in an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit against the government (see July 26, 1950) because the reports are so highly classified that their disclosure might “seriously hamper national security” (see July 26, 1950 and August 7-8, 1950), the Air Force, in a routine review, drastically lowers the classification of the accident reports from top-level “Secret” to third-level “Restricted.” Whereas “Secret” documents supposedly contain information that “might endanger national security” if revealed, “Restricted” documents are “for official use only” and should not be disclosed “for reasons of administrative privacy.” The Air Force apparently no longer considers the documents a threat to national security. However, neither the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the judge hearing the lawsuit, or even the Justice Department lawyers are aware of the reports’ reduction in status. They continue to argue the merits of releasing the reports as if they are still highly classified. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 133]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Air Force, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Federal judge William H. Kirkpatrick rules that the US government must turn over the disputed, and supposedly highly classified (see September 14, 1950), accident reports from a 1948 B-29 crash (see October 6, 1948)—not to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the crash (see July 26, 1950), but to Kirkpatrick himself. He wishes to review the reports to determine if they contain any information that might threaten national security, and, before turning the documents over to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, will personally remove that information. In mid-October, when the government again refuses to turn over the documents, Kirkpatrick will find in favor of the plaintiffs (see October 12, 1950). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 133-134]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, William H. Kirkpatrick

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Federal judge William H. Kirkpatrick rules in favor of the plaintiffs in a wrongful death lawsuit against the US government (see October 6, 1948, June 21, 1949, and July 26, 1950), after the government refuses to turn over classified accident reports that have a direct bearing on the plaintiffs’ case (see September 21, 1950). Judge Kirkpatrick orders the government to pay the plaintiffs, three widows who lost their husbands in a 1948 plane crash, a total of $225,000. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Charles Biddle, expects the government to balk at paying out the money, and to instead continue to challenge the court’s attempt to compel it to turn over the accident reports (see October 19, 1951). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 134-139]

Entity Tags: Charles Biddle, William H. Kirkpatrick

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The government, represented by a team of Justice Department lawyers, appeals the recent ruling against it in the ‘Banshee’ B-29 plane crash lawsuit (see June 21, 1949). In the Third US Circuit Appeals Court, the government argues that the lower court had no business demanding that the Air Force turn over classified accident reports about the crash, because the reports may contain information that would potentially compromise national security (see October 12-18, 1948 and September 14, 1950). The government had twice defied court orders to produce the documents, and as a result had lost the lawsuit (see October 12, 1950). The Justice Department’s arguments come down to the assertion that the judiciary has no constitutional right to compel the executive branch to turn over documents it considers privileged. In 2008, author Barry Siegel will write, “For the first time in the B-29 litigation, the government directly argued that the judiciary could not review [the government’s] claim of privilege.” The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Charles Biddle, counters that the executive branch has no such sweeping claim of privilege, and that a judge should be allowed to review documents in dispute to determine both their bearing on a case and the possibility that releasing those documents could jeopardize national security (see September 21, 1950). Three weeks later, the appeals court will rule unanimously against the government (see December 11, 1951). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 149-153]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Charles Biddle, Barry Siegel

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A three-judge federal appeals court unanimously rejects the government’s claim of unfettered executive privilege and secrecy in regards to classified documents (see October 19, 1951). In an opinion written by Judge Albert Maris, the court finds that the government’s claim that the judiciary can never compel the executive branch to turn over classified documents to be without legal merit. The plaintiffs in the case, three widows who lost their husbands in the crash of a B-29 bomber carrying classified materials (see June 21, 1949), had a compelling need for the documents in question, the downed B-29 accident reports, to further their case, Maris writes (see October 12, 1950).
No Legal Basis for Claim of Privilege - Maris goes further than the parameters of the single lawsuit, writing: “[W]e regard the recognition of such a sweeping privilege… as contrary to a sound public policy. The present cases themselves indicate the breadth of the claim of immunity from disclosure which one government department head has already made. It is but a small step to assert a privilege against any disclosure of records merely because they might prove embarrassing to government officials. Indeed, it requires no great flight of imagination to realize that if the government’s contentions in these cases were affirmed, the privilege against disclosure might gradually be enlarged… until as is the case in some nations today, it embraced the whole range of government activities.… We need to recall in this connection the words of [Revolution-era jurist] Edward Livingston: ‘No nation ever yet found any inconvenience from too close an inspection into the conduct of its officers, but many have been brought to ruin, and reduced to slavery, by suffering gradual imposition and abuses, which were imperceptible, only because the means of publicity had not been secured.’” He also quotes Revolutionary War figure Patrick Henry, who said, “[T]o cover with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business is an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man and every friend to his country.”
Rejecting Claim of 'State Secrets' - Maris is even less respectful of the government’s claim of a “state secrets” privilege. He notes that the government did not make that claim until well into the lawsuit proceedings (see October 19, 1951), indicating that it was a “fallback” argument used after the original government arguments had failed. Maris is also troubled, as author Barry Siegel later writes, in the government’s “assertion of unilateral executive power, free from judicial review, to decide what qualified as secret.” The lower court judge’s ruling that he alone should be given the documents for review adequately protected the government’s security interests, Maris writes: “[But] the government contends that it is within the sole province of the secretary of the Air Force to determine whether any privileged material is contained in the documents and that his determination of this question must be accepted by the district court without any independent consideration.… We cannot accede to this proposition. On the contrary, we are satisfied that a claim of privilege against disclosing evidence… involves a justiciable question, traditionally within the competence of the courts.… To hold that the head of an executive department of the government in a [law]suit to which the United States is a party may conclusively determine the government’s claim of privilege is to abdicate the judicial function to infringe the independent province of the judiciary as laid down by the Constitution.”
Fundamental Principle of Checks and Balances - Maris continues: “The government of the United States is one of checks and balances. One of the principal checks is furnished by the independent judiciary which the Constitution established. Neither the executive nor the legislative branch of the government may constitutionally encroach upon the field which the Constitution has reserved for the judiciary.… Nor is there any danger to the public interest in submitting the question of privilege to the decision of the courts. The judges of the United States are public officers whose responsibilities under the Constitution is just as great as that of the heads of the executive departments.”
Government Appeal - The Justice Department will appeal the ruling to the US Supreme Court (see March 1952 and March 9, 1953). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 153-156]

Entity Tags: Albert Maris, US Department of Justice, Barry Siegel, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Judy Palya Loether.Judy Palya Loether. [Source: SecrecyFilm (.com)]Judy Palya Loether, the daughter of a civilian engineer killed in a 1948 plane crash while on a secret government mission (see October 6, 1948), reads over the voluminous reports of the accident that claimed her father’s life. The reports, now declassified (see January 1996), had been at the heart of a landmark lawsuit that gave judicial recognition to the government’s “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953). Loether is shocked to find that the reports contain nothing that could be construed as military or tactical secrets of any kind, though for decades the government has insisted that they could not be revealed, even to a judge (see October 18, 1948, July 26, 1950, August 7-8, 1950, September 21, 1950, and October 19, 1951). What they do contain is a compendium of witness statements and expert findings that indicate a number of mistakes and errors led to the crash. Loether begins contacting the families of the widows who had filed the original lawsuit against the government (seeJune 21, 1949) to share her findings. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 210-211] Loether is confused and angered over the contents of the reports, and the government’s response to the lawsuit. She cannot understand why the government pressed so hard to keep the reports classified, knowing that they contained no sensitive information about the secret missile program, and is particularly troubled by the fact that at least two senior government officials signed affidavits affirming the reports’ inclusion of such information while knowing that the reports contained nothing of the sort. She wonders if government officials had perhaps decided to lie about the reports in order to establish some sort of state secrets privilege. In September 2002, lawyers Wilson Brown and Jeff Almeida, retained by Loether and others who lost family members in the crash, come to the same conclusion. As Almeida will say to Brown: “I’ve read this report. There’s nothing in there.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 219] As time goes on, Loether and her colleagues files a second lawsuit seeking to overturn the first Supreme Court verdict (see February 26, 2003).

Entity Tags: Wilson Brown, Jeff Almeida, Judy Palya Loether

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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