There are two things you really need to know about the "state secrets" privilege.
The first is that the government lied in the 1953 Supreme Court case that established the government's right not to disclose to the judicial branch information that would compromise national security. The widows of three civilian engineers who died in a military airplane crash sued the government for negligence. The government refused to turn over records, citing national security. But some 50 years later, when the records in question were made public, there were no national security secrets in them, just embarrassing information establishing the government's negligence. (More about the case here.)
The second thing is that the way the state secrets privilege has typically worked since then is that the government can refuse to publicly disclose a specific item of information if it explains why to the judge. The idea is not that government officials get to tell a judge to dismiss an entire case because they don't want to answer any questions at all.
Friday, April 10, 2009
More on the state secrets suits from Dan Froomkin: