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Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets Paperback – Bargain Price, June 9, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1948, three civilian engineers died in the crash of an air force B-29 bomber that was testing a missile guidance system; in their widows' lawsuit, the Supreme Court upheld the air force's refusal to divulge accident reports that it claimed held military secrets. But when the declassified reports surfaced decades later, the only sensitive information in them involved the chronic tendency of B-29 engines to catch fire, egregious lapses in maintenance and safety procedures, and gross pilot error. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Siegel (Shades of Gray) ably recounts the case, a scandal and cover-up with grave constitutional implications. The 1953 Supreme Court decision gave the executive branch sweeping authority to conceal information under national security claims without judicial review, a precedent confirmed when the Court refused to reopen the case in 2003. (The author notes the influence of Cold War anxieties and the 9/11 attacks in these rulings.) Siegel insists on decorating the story with often extraneous human-interest profiles of everyone involved. But his is an engrossing exposition of the facts and legal issues in the case, which produced a disturbing legacy of government secrecy and misconduct still very much alive. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Barry Siegel’s Claim of Privilege uncovers the mystery behind a famous Supreme Court case, reveals its poignant human cost, and offers a timely reminder of the perils of government secrecy.” (Jeffrey Toobin, New York Times bestselling author of THE NINE )
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For a variety of very dubious reasons the Air Force was extremely reluctant to release the facts surrounding this case. They steadfastly refused to produce the accident report citing "state secrets" and this in essence was the crux of this case. The families of Al Palya, Bob Reynolds and William Brauner, the three civilian engineers who were killed in this mishap, had no idea why the accident occurred. Release of the accident report was crucial to their understanding of what had happened to their loved ones. In 1949 the widows of these engineers approached renowned attorney Charles Biddle of the Philadelphia law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath about representing them in this case. Biddle was a former World War I fighter pilot and was intrigued by the issues presented in the case. None of the parties involved could ever have imagined that the legal wrangling surrounding this incident would ultimately span more than half a century.
"Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets" chronicles this case as it originally unfolded in the early 1950's. Throughout the litigation the Air Force continued to cite "state secrets" and refused to release the accident report. The case would ultimately wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before the Supreme Court the U.S. government continued to maintain that releasing the accident report would have a detrimental effect on national security. Given the prevailing political climate the majority of the Justices bought the government's argument. This decision would prove to have serious unintended ramifications for our nation. Over the ensuing decades the Executive branch would choose to classify more and more documents as "secret".
Fast forward now to the year 2000. Judy Palya, daughter of crash victim Al Palya, was surfing on the internet when she discovered something quite remarkable. Unbeknownst to the families all Air Force accident reports prior to 1956 had been declassified by the Clinton administration in 1996. For a nominal fee she could obtain a hard copy of the 200+ page accident report. What Judy discovered in this report was shocking and would pave the way for another round of litigation. It was quite obvious that the U.S. Government had lied to the Supreme Court about this case back in the 1950's! Nearly a half century after the original case was litigated the law firm of Drinker, Biddle & Reath would again become involved in an attempt to correct this huge miscarriage of justice that had far reaching consequences both for the families of the victims and for the American people as well. This decision seems to have paved the way for future administrations to greatly expand the culture of secrecy in Washington, particularly after the 9/11 attacks. "Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets" chronicles this remarkable case from start to finish. Author Barry Siegel has given us an exceptionally well-written and meticulously documented book. This just might be the best book I have read in 2009. I could not put it down. "Claim of Privilege" certainly contains all of the elements of a great motion picture. Very highly recommended!
A litany of successive abuses of executive privilege has proceeded from that event, protected by legal assumptions that were couched in the mechanics of the original lie. Barry Siegel gives us a detailed and meticulously documented look into this part of our American heritage, and he does it with a strong personal sense for the human beings who have been - and will be affected.
The decision arose out of a 1948 crash of a B-29 Superfortress bomber which was testing secret electronics, and which crashed, killing nine of thirteen men aboard. Among the dead were three civilian RCA engineers, and their widows claimed the crash was a result of government negligence. There are always accident reports after such crashes, but after the suit was brought by the widows, the Justice department claimed the accident report was a national security secret, even though it had nothing to do with the secret electronics on board. Lower courts rejected such a declaration, but the Supreme Court decided that courts should accept any executive branch claim of secrecy and not look any deeper; part of the court's deference to the government was that the political atmosphere was thick with communist plots and international threats. The lower courts decided rightly; the Supreme Court was presented with a fraud, and wrongly decided on the basis of that fraud. The latter part of this book is a satisfying human story of how children of the dead engineers and the one remaining widow got together starting in 2000 to pursue their claim, and how the original law firm that has pursued the case was eager to take up the battle again.
It turned out to be, at best, a muted victory; national security concerns were high at the time of the new claim, just as they had been at the time of the original one. The new claim, however, made it clear that the original one had been based on a fraudulent claim of national security. The claimants weren't interested in repealing the original decision, or attempting to tear down established national security law. What they accomplished was that judges, when confronted with lawyers for the Justice Department claiming secrecy due to _Reynolds_, had to remember the faulty background behind the original judgement, and ought more closely to consider whether something is a secret just because the government says so. It is good to remember this at a time when the state secrets privilege is a favorite tool to drop whistle-blowers, restrain investigation into detentions, and promote surveillance programs. Siegel is too good a journalist to let his book turn into a manifesto against the secret-hugging current administration, and though he mentions some current cases, his criticism is mostly implicit. Nonetheless, this is a powerful legal story which convincingly shows that citizens ought to have a measure of distrust when the government waves the "state secret" flag.