WASHINGTON — Eric Holder, the new attorney general, has ordered a review of all claims of state secrets, which were used under President Bush to shield controversial anti-terrorism programs from lawsuits.
The so-called state secrets privilege was invoked by the previous administration to stymie a lawsuit challenging the government's warrantless wiretapping program.
"The attorney general has directed that senior Justice Department officials review all assertions of the state secrets privilege to ensure that is being invoked only in legally appropriate situations," Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said Monday.
"It's 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," said Miller.
Even as officials promised a thorough review, government lawyers continued to invoke the state secrets law Monday in a federal appeals court in San Francisco. That case involves a lawsuit over the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.
Under that program, U.S. operatives seized foreign suspects and handed them over to other countries for questioning.
Some former prisoners subjected to the process contend they were tortured. Proving that in court has been difficult, as evidence they have sought to corroborate their claims has been protected by the president's state secrets privilege.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been urging the Obama administration to drop its state secrets claim.
ACLU executive director Anthony Romero criticized the new administration's handling of the San Francisco case by continuing the legal arguments of the prior administration.
"Candidate Obama ran on a platform that would reform the abuse of state secrets, but President Obama's Justice Department has disappointingly reneged on that important civil liberties issue," Romero said in a statement.