In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture, a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration.
In the case, Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian native, and four other detainees filed suit against a subsidiary of Boeing for arranging flights for the Bush administration’s “extraordinary rendition” program, in which terrorism suspects were secretly taken to other countries, where they say they were tortured. The Bush administration argued that the case should be dismissed because even discussing it in court could threaten national security and relations with other nations.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama harshly criticized the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees, and he has broken with that administration on questions like whether to keep open the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But a government lawyer, Douglas N. Letter, made the same state-secrets argument on Monday, startling several judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“Is there anything material that has happened” that might have caused the Justice Department to shift its views, asked Judge Mary M. Schroeder, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, coyly referring to the recent election.
“No, your honor,” Mr. Letter replied.
Judge Schroeder asked, “The change in administration has no bearing?”
Once more, he said, “No, Your Honor.” The position he was taking in court on behalf of the government had been “thoroughly vetted with the appropriate officials within the new administration,” and “these are the authorized positions,” he said.
That produced an angry response from Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs.
“This is not change,” he said in a statement. “This is definitely more of the same. Candidate Obama ran on a platform that would reform the abuse of state secrets, but President Obama’s Justice Department has disappointingly reneged on that important civil liberties issue. If this is a harbinger of things to come, it will be a long and arduous road to give us back an America we can be proud of again.”
A Justice Department spokesman, Matt Miller, said the government did not comment on pending litigation, but he seemed to suggest that Mr. Obama would invoke the privilege more sparingly than its predecessor.
“It is the policy of this administration to invoke the state secrets privilege only when necessary and in the most appropriate cases,” he said, adding that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had asked for a review of pending cases in which the government had previously asserted a state secret privilege.
“The attorney general has directed that senior Justice Department officials review all assertions of the state secrets privilege to ensure that the privilege is being invoked only in legally appropriate situations,” he said. “It is vital that we protect information that, if released, could jeopardize national security.”
The court papers describe horrific treatment in secret prisons. Mr. Mohamed claimed that during his detention in Morocco, “he was routinely beaten, suffering broken bones and, on occasion, loss of consciousness. His clothes were cut off with a scalpel and the same scalpel was then used to make incisions on his body, including his penis. A hot stinging liquid was then poured into open wounds on his penis where he had been cut. He was frequently threatened with rape, electrocution and death.”
Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the A.C.L.U., told the judges that many of the facts that the government is trying to keep secret are scarcely secret at all, since the administration’s rendition program and the particulars of many of the cases have been revealed in news reports and in the work of government investigations from around the world. “The only place in the world where these claims can’t be discussed,” Mr. Wizner said, “is in this courtroom.”
What the A.C.L.U. is asking, he said, is that the case be allowed to go forward, giving the courts a chance to decide, based on classified information revealed solely to the judge, what should be allowed to be discussed.
But Mr. Letter said that the lower court judge, James Ware, did receive classified information and came to the correct conclusion in dismissing the case last year. He urged the judges to pore over the same material, and predicted “you will understand precisely, as Judge Ware did, why this case can’t be litigated.”
In a related matter, Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Monday proposed the establishment of a “truth commission” to investigate the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees and other issues, like the firings of United States attorneys by the Justice Department. The commission, he said, could grant immunity to witnesses to explore the facts without the threat of criminal prosecution.
What this is clearly about is shielding the U.S. Government and Bush officials from any accountability. Worse, by keeping Bush’s secrecy architecture in place, it ensures that any future President — Obama or any other — can continue to operate behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy, with no transparency or accountability even for blatantly criminal acts. [continued…]
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said the government should look into creating a “truth commission” to investigate the Bush administration’s Department of Justice.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that such a commission, which would answer to both Congress and the executive branch, could probe Bush administration policies on torture, interrogation and surveillance and “get to the bottom of what happened” during the eight years the Bush administration grappled with the legal war on terror.
Leahy called his proposal a “middle ground” between those critics of the Bush administration seeking to prosecute officials, and others wishing to concentrate on the future as opposed to investigating the past. “We need to be able to read the page before we turn it,” said Leahy. [continued…]