1953 March 9

Supreme Court Creates “State Secrets” Doctrine


In the case of United States v. Reynolds, decided on this day, the Supreme Court established the “state secrets” doctrine, which allows the government to withhold documents from court proceedings on the grounds that their release would reveal state secrets and damage national security. The case involved the deaths of civilian employees in the crash of a U.S. Air Force plane. Family members sued the government, but the government withheld a key report about the incident and the plaintiffs lost their case. When the report was finally released years later, it was discovered that the information might have vindicated the plaintiffs in their suit.

The “state secrets” doctrine lay dormant for about 20 years; but beginning in the 1970s, both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations began making significant use of it to cloak in secrecy their actions in the national security area.

The Court: “Experience in the past war has made it common knowledge that air power is one of the most potent weapons in our scheme of defense, and that newly developing electronic devices have greatly enhanced the effective use of air power. It is equally apparent that these electronic devices must be kept secret if their full military advantage is to be exploited in the national interests. . . .”

Read about the case: Louis Fisher, In the Name of National Security: Unchecked Presidential Power and the Reynolds Case (2006)

Learn more; read the Congressional Research Service 2011 report on State Secrets: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/secrecy/R41741.pdf

Learn more about the background of the state secrets privilege: https://www.aclu.org/national-security/background-state-secrets-privilege

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