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Court will not revisit 'state secrets' ruling based on false record

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Court will not revisit ‘state secrets’ ruling based on false record

  • Heirs of victims killed in a U.S. Air Force crash have shown that a 1953 high court decision barring them access to records was based on false affidavits, but the court will not reconsider the landmark decision.

June 25, 2003 — The U.S. Supreme Court refused June 23 to revisit a 1953 ruling that denied plaintiffs access to a U.S. Air Force accident report on grounds that it contained “state secrets,” even though the recently released report contained no such secrets. The “state secrets” designation allows the government to withhold “military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged,” even to a federal court.

The case originated from the 1948 crash of a U.S. Air Force B-29 Superfortress bomber, which was flying a secret mission when it spun out of control and crashed in rural Georgia. Nine of the13 people on board the plane were killed. The widows of three of the victims sued the U.S. government, but were denied a copy of the accident report they needed to pursue their case.

The Air Force withheld the reports, claiming they contained information about the plane’s secret mission and about top-secret electronic equipment on board, which had to be protected.

“But it turns out that the Air Force’s affidavits were false,” the surviving widows and heirs of the crash victims wrote in their petition to the Court.

The declassified report, obtained by one of the petitioners three years ago, showed that the secret project was unrelated to the plane crash, which was caused by errors made by the base commander, the mechanics and the crew.

The plaintiffs argued that the 1953 “state secrets privilege” established by the U.S. Supreme court in United States v. Reynolds was based on false affidavits. The court made no comments regarding its June 23 decision not to review the case.

If the Supreme Court is “willing to play fast and loose” with a national security case from the 1950s “where there was clearly a fraud involved,” then this does not bode well for current cases where the government is claiming national security as an excuse to keep terror related charges secret, said Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice and author of the Cato study “Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Preserving Our Liberties While Fighting Terrorism.”

(Petition for a writ of error to the Supreme Court; Petitioner’s attorney: Wilson M. Brown, Drinker, Biddle and Reath LLP, Philadelphia) GS


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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