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Obama Administration Continues to Abuse State Secrets Privilege to Cover Up Misdeeds

The State Department response to the ACLU's FOIA requests for WikiLeaks' cables reveals the absurd abuses of state secrecy.

Ben Wizner, the litigation director for the ACLU's national security project, cheerfully admits that its April 2011  Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for 23 of the very same US State Department diplomatic cables we all read this time last year, when  WikiLeaks released them to five newspapers  including the Guardian, was "cheeky" – a way to foreground the "absurdity of the US secrecy regime".

And so it has. Nearly eight months after the original FOIA request, the  State Department has finally released … 11 cables. Federal censors have helpfully redacted them, making it easy to see, by a simple act of comparison ( which the ACLU performs for us, here), precisely which sections the State Department wants hidden. Missing are a dirty dozen cables the government refused to release – despite those cables having already been leaked, published and analysed in virtually every major national and international media venue – again, because they were classified as secret or deemed to contain sensitive information.

Administration officials unleashed plenty of hyperbole and hysteria when the cables were first published. But it turned out that none of the information in them actually endangered American citizens, allies or informants. They did, however, prove embarrassing for the US and many foreign leaders. Because it turned out that claims about national security were often an excuse to prevent us from seeing our government engaged in unethical, unconstitutional and, sometimes, illegal practices. These ran the gamut from extraordinary renditions, detentions and  torture to shaking down other governments in an attempt to influence their political processes and tamper with their criminal justice systems.

We learned that the same Obama administration that had refused to  pursue the perpetrators of the Bush torture regime at home  had also tried to put its thumbs on the scales of justice in Spain – aggressively  attempting to prevent a counter-terrorism judge from trying the senior legal minds of the Bush administration for their part in the torture of detainees at  Guantánamo Bay.

We learned about the US attempt to scuttle the case of German citizen Khaled el-Masri, the greengrocer mistaken for a senior al-Qaida official. He was kidnapped, tortured, drugged, beaten and thrown into Afghanistan's  CIA-run Salt Pit prison, until – oops – they realised they had the wrong guy and dumped him in the Albanian outback. In public, Munich prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 13 suspected CIA operatives involved in his abduction and torture, and Angela Merkel's office called for an investigation. In private, the German justice ministry and foreign ministry both made it clear to the US that they were not interested in pursuing the case, emboldening the US to refuse to arrest or hand over the agents.

If the  first part of the ACLU's agenda in asking for the 23 already-leaked cables is to highlight what it calls a "penchant for excessive secrecy in defiance of all reason", the second is to spotlight the way in which the  Bush and Obama administrations abuse the state secrets privilege to keep illegal programs from being judicially reviewed.

When the  ACLU challenged the CIA on behalf of el-Masri in 2005, a judge dismissed the case. The US government did not deny that he was wrongfully kidnapped. Instead, it successfully argued that his case be dismissed because litigation of his claims would expose state secrets and jeopardise American security.  This despite the fact that, as el-Masri pointed out, "President Bush has told the world about the CIA's detention program, and even though my allegations have been corroborated by eyewitnesses and other evidence."

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