State Secrets Privilege: Preventing the Disclosure of Sensitive National Security Information During Civil Litigation [August 16, 2011] [open pdf - 286KB]
"The state secrets privilege is a judicially created evidentiary privilege that allows the federal government to resist court-ordered disclosure of information during litigation if there is a reasonable danger that such disclosure would harm the national security of the United States. Although the common law privilege has a long history, the Supreme Court first described the modern analytical framework of the state secrets privilege in the 1953 case of 'United States v. Reynolds', 345 U.S. 1 (1953). In 'Reynolds', the Court laid out a two-step procedure to be used when evaluating a claim of privilege to protect state secrets. First, there must be a formal claim of privilege, lodged by the head of the department that has control over the matter, after actual personal consideration by that officer. Second, a court must independently determine whether the circumstances are appropriate for the claim of privilege, and yet do so without forcing a disclosure of the very matter the privilege is designed to protect. If the privilege is appropriately invoked, it is absolute and the disclosure of the underlying information cannot be compelled by a court. […] Recently, the privilege has been characterized by a number of highprofile assertions--including invocation of the privilege to defend against claims arising from the government's 'extraordinary rendition' practices, challenges to the terrorist surveillance program, and claims against various national security agencies for unlawful employment practices. The government has also intervened and invoked the privilege in a significant number of cases involving claims against government contractors. Most recently, in May of 2011, the Supreme Court held that the valid invocation of the state secrets privilege could render a defense contracting dispute nonjusticiable, leaving both the defense contractor and the Pentagon without any judicial remedies to enforce the contract. This report is intended to present an overview of the protections afforded by the state secrets privilege; a discussion of some of the many unresolved issues associated with the privilege; and a selection of high-profile examples of how the privilege has been applied in practice."
CRS Report for Congress, R41741