Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Claim of State Secrets is a Wet Blanket

The Administration recently supported a Bush claim that a court proceeding should not continue, in order to protect state secrets. It is time to probe the definition of "state secrets" more deeply, to shine a little more light on what is and what is not a legitimate claim.

Once, state secrets were more obvious: nuclear weapons technology, for example. Or, troop movements or strategic plans in Korea, or Vietnam. This area generally was focused on military/spy operations, to protect lives and identities. Some of these concerns legitimately continue, although broad claims even in the military area need to be examined by appropriate courts.

Beyond this, what constitutes an appropriate claim for state secrecy? Is it appropriate to protect illegal actions by the executive? Iran-Contra, for example? Or, torture? Shouldn't we decide that no illegal action is entitled to protection as a state secret?

What about legal, but stupid actions? Should the state secrets umbrella protect people from embarrassment? I think not.

What about lies? Aid to dictators? Failures to provide humanitarian assistance?

The principle should be that a state secret protects an interest that if disclosed, would seriously compromise the safety or security of the country. We should develop a list of categories of state secrets, with general justifications for each. Then, appropriate courts could review claims within each category for legitimacy, with Congressional oversight.

Continuing deference to executive claims, with reflexive acceptance, is in itself a threat to democracy: we need to do better.

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