Judges voice discomfort at secrecy of spy program

January 26, 2007|By New York Times News Service

The Bush administration has employed extraordinary secrecy in defending the National Security Agency's highly classified domestic surveillance program from civil lawsuits. Plaintiffs and judges' clerks cannot see its secret filings. Judges have to make appointments to review them and are not allowed to keep copies.

Judges have even been instructed to use computers provided by the Justice Department to compose their decisions.

But at a private meeting with the lawyers in one of the cases this month, the judges who will hear the first appeal next week expressed uneasiness about the procedures, said a lawyer who attended, Ann Beeson of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lawyers suing the government and some legal scholars say the procedures threaten the separation of powers, the adversary system and lawyer-client privilege.

Justice Department officials say the cases, involving a highly classified program, require extraordinary measures. The officials say they have used similar procedures in other cases involving classified materials.

In ordinary civil suits, the parties' submissions are sent to their adversaries and are available to the public in open court files.

But in several cases challenging the eavesdropping, Justice Department lawyers have been submitting legal papers not by filing them in court but by placing them in a room at the department. They have filed papers, in other words, with themselves.

The tactics, said a lawyer in the current case, Jon B. Eisenberg, prompted him to conduct unusual research.

"Sometime during all of this," Eisenberg said, "I went on Amazon and ordered a copy of Kafka's The Trial because I needed a refresher course in bizarre legal procedures."

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