ACLU Sues State Department to Declassify Diplomatic Cables Already Revealed by WikiLeaks

June 9, 2011 12:55 pm

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Government’s Refusal to Respond to FOIA Request Illustrates Rampant Overuse of Secrecy

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today sued the State Department over its insistence on keeping classified a set of diplomatic cables describing the government’s efforts abroad to avoid attention or accountability over its actions connected to the “War on Terror,” despite the fact that the documents have already been released by WikiLeaks. On April 12, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request for 23 embassy cables that were widely disseminated by news organizations in November 2010. The government has refused to respond to the request, prompting today’s lawsuit.

“Our current secrecy regime has become completely untethered from reality. The government’s insistence that information published throughout the world remains ‘classified’ is not only ridiculous – it’s a legal fiction that has permitted government officials to evade liability for illegal conduct,” said Ben Wizner, litigation director of the ACLU National Security Project. “All too often, the government has employed secrecy not to protect the nation from harm, but to protect the powerful from embarrassment and accountability.”

The 23 cables in the FOIA request include communications about the secret use of drones for targeted killings, opposition to the release of photos showing U.S. torture of detainees and attempts to undermine European investigations into the rendition and torture of terror suspects.

While refusing even to admit that the cables are authentic, the State Department has also denounced the leaking of the documents and instructed its employees not to download them from the Internet. In another example of the government’s unrealistic position, it has said that lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees may not read classified documents about their clients released by WikiLeaks, unless they do so at a secure government facility.

Today’s lawsuit comes as the government prepares to declassify and release the complete “Pentagon Papers” study of the Vietnam War – 40 years after it was leaked to the press. Both cases show the government’s continued anti-democratic policy of keeping documents classified despite their widespread availability, illustrating a disturbing hostility to transparency and Americans’ right to know what the government is doing in their name.

“The American people should not have to wait another forty years for their government to decide whether the public is entitled to know about government efforts to shield officials from liability for torture,” said Dror Ladin, legal fellow with the ACLU National Security Project.

In addition to Wizner and Ladin, Arthur Spitzer of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital is an attorney on the case.

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