Justice Department to review all state secrets claims

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered on Monday a review of all claims of state secrets used to block lawsuits into warrantless spying on Americans and the treatment of foreign terrorism suspects.

Holder, who was appointed by President Barack Obama and took office last week, directed senior Justice Department officials to review all Bush-era claims of state secrets to make sure they are invoked only in legally appropriate situations, a spokesman said.

“It is vital that we protect information that, if released, could jeopardize national security. But the Justice Department will ensure the privilege is not invoked to hide from the American people information about their government’s actions that they have a right to know,” spokesman Matt Miller said.

The U.S. government has in some cases invoked state-secret claims that allowing a lawsuit to proceed could jeopardize national security. Such cases include legal challenges to the domestic spying program using wiretaps that President George W. Bush began after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Holder’s review was disclosed the same day as Justice Department lawyers repeated a Bush administration state-secret claim in a lawsuit against a Boeing Co unit. The suit claims the company helped fly terrorism suspects abroad to secret prisons.

In arguments before a U.S. appeals court in San Francisco, the Obama administration opted not to change the government’s position in the case, instead saying the entire subject matter of the case involved a state secret.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit accusing Boeing’s Jeppesen Dataplan Inc of providing flight and logistic support to the U.S. government with at least 15 aircraft on 70 “extraordinary-rendition” flights.

The ACLU brought the case on behalf of five men who say the CIA had them flown to foreign prisons for interrogations and torture.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the heart of the case involved allegations of covert U.S. military or CIA operations in foreign countries against foreign nationals, a subject matter which qualified as a state secret.

The ACLU then went to the appeals court in arguing the lawsuit should be allowed to go forward.

The ACLU’s Ben Wizner, who argued the case, said, “We are shocked and deeply disappointed that the Justice Department has chosen to continue the Bush administration’s practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture.”

Miller cited the department policy of not commenting on pending litigation and specific cases.

But he added, “It is the policy of this administration to invoke the state secrets privilege only when necessary and in the most appropriate cases.”

Editing by Randall Mikkelsen and Anthony Boadle