Claim of Privilege
A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets
By Barry Siegel
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780060777029, 400pp.)
Publication Date: June 1, 2008
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In the tradition of A Civil Action and Gideon's Trumpet, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Siegel unfolds the shocking true story behind the Supreme Court case that forever changed the balance of power in America.
On October 6, 1948, a trio of civilian engineers joined a U.S. Air Force crew on a B-29 Superfortress, whose mission was to test secret navigational equipment. Shortly after takeoff the plane crashed, killing all three engineers and six others. In June 1949, the widows of the engineers filed suit against the government. What had happened to their men? they asked. Why had these civilians been aboard an Air Force plane in the first place?
But the Air Force, at the dawn of the Cold War, refused to hand over the accident reports and witness statements, claiming the documents contained classified information that would threaten national security. The case made its way up to the Supreme Court, which in 1953 sided with the Air Force in United States v. Reynolds. This landmark decision formally recognized the "state secrets" privilege, a legal precedent that has since been used to conceal conduct, withhold documents, block troublesome litigation, and, most recently, detain terror suspects without due-process protections.
Even with the case closed, the families of those who died in the crash never stopped wondering what had happened in that B-29. They finally had their answer a half century later: In 2000 they learned that the government was now making available the top-secret information the families had sought long ago, in vain. The documents, it turned out, contained no national security secrets but rather a shocking chronicle of negligence.
Equal parts history, legal drama, and exposé, Claim of Privilege tells the story of this shameful incident, its impact on our nation, and a courageous fight to right a wrong from the past. Placing the story within the context of the time, Siegel draws clear connections between the apocalyptic fears of the early Cold War years and post-9/11 America—and shows the dangerous consequences of this historic cover-up: the violation of civil liberties and the abuse of constitutional protections. By evoking the past, Claim of Privilege illuminates the present. Here is a mesmerizing narrative that indicts what our government is willing to do in the name of national security.