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Article I v. State Secrets

Well, if nothing else, this al-Haramain case in CA looks like it’ll focus the issue of States Secrets just as the Senate attempts to curb it.

An Islamic charity group is challenging the Bush administration’s record use of the so-called state secrets privilege, dubbed a "killer bullet" to the group’s case over warrantless wiretapping.

Lawyers for the Oregon-based U.S. arm of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation on Wednesday urged a federal judge to toss out the government’s use of the privilege and let their lawsuit proceed.

The SF Chronicle captures the government argument in all its Kafkaesque glory.

A Bush administration lawyer resisted a San Francisco federal judge’s attempts Wednesday to get him to say whether Congress can limit the president’s wiretap authority in terrorism and espionage cases, calling the question simplistic.

"You can’t possibly make that judgment on the public record" without knowing the still-secret details of the electronic surveillance program that President Bush approved in 2001, Justice Department attorney Anthony Coppolino said at a crucial hearing in a wiretapping lawsuit.


But Walker, in an extensive exchange with Coppolino, said Congress had spoken clearly in a 1978 law that required the government to obtain a warrant from a secret court before it could conduct electronic surveillance of suspected foreign terrorists or spies.

"The president is obliged to follow what Congress has mandated," Walker said.

Coppolino replied that Congress has also authorized the president to protect the nation and its military secrets.


Walker pressed him on a more basic issue: whether Congress acted constitutionally when it required court approval for such wiretaps in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"I think it’s a bit of a simplistic question," Coppolino said.

"One might call it a fundamental question," the judge replied.

The government lawyer said that Congress "sought to intrude on the president’s authority to authorize surveillance" when it enacted the law, and that Bush, acting under his constitutional powers, had determined that its provisions were not sufficient to allow law enforcement authorities to thwart terrorists’ attack plans.

But Coppolino said the constitutionality of the law, and the related question of whether it is binding on the president, can’t be resolved without delving into operational details whose exposure would damage national security.

It looks like Coppolino’s argument will be worth reviewing in detail–to either laugh … or cry. I’m particularly interested in Coppolino’s concession that Congress "authorized" the President to protect military secrets, but that they "sought to intrude on the president’s authority to authorize surveillance." Maybe it’s just something in the water in the Bay Area, but it appears that Coppolino is fuzzy on Youngstown, too.

But Coppolino is willing to concede that the authorization to keep secrets comes from Congress, then I’m sure the Administration will have no problem when Congress sharply curtails the President’s power to invoke State Secrets every time he’s trying to cover up felonious behavior.


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Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.