US high court to hear ‘state secrets’ case on Muslim surveillance

Supreme Court agrees to second ‘state secrets’ case on whether lawsuit claiming FBI spied on US Muslims can go forward.

The Supreme Court said it will take up another 'state secrets' case this year [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a lawsuit can go forward in which a group of Muslim residents of California allege the FBI targeted them for surveillance because of their religion.

It is the second case the court has accepted for the fall involving a government claim of “state secrets”, the idea that the government can block the release of information it claims would harm national security if disclosed.

This legal precedent stems from the 1953 case US v Reynolds that saw the Supreme Court uphold state secret privilege after the widows of three men who died in an aeroplane crash sought accident reports to sue the US government. The government asserted releasing the reports would endanger national security.

As is usual, the court did not comment on Monday beyond saying it will take the case, which is expected to be heard after the court takes its summer recess and begins hearing arguments again in October.

In the other state secrets case, the justices have accepted they will decide whether a Palestinian man captured after the September 11 attacks and held at the prison on the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can get access to information the government classifies as state secrets.

Often, the privilege is invoked in civil suits. These cases are dropped when a plaintiff is barred from access to privileged information, which is usually required for the case to continue.

Judges will rarely review the privileged information, even in private.

The case the court accepted on Monday involves three Muslim residents of Southern California who say that from 2006 to 2007 the FBI paid a confidential informant to covertly gather information about Muslims in Orange County, California, based solely on their religion.

A district court dismissed the case after the federal government invoked the state secrets privilege. The court agreed that continuing the case would “greatly risk disclosure of secret information”. But an appeals court reversed the decision.

The San Francisco appeals court ruled that state secrets privileges do not outweigh the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Bloomberg news agency reported.

That law lets a judge review the disputed information in a closed-door hearing to decide whether the surveillance was warranted.

The FBI has long faced criticism over its surveillance of Muslim communities in the US. Al Jazeera investigated surveillance of Muslim communities for counterterrorism sting operations in the 2014 “Informants” documentary.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies