Senate to Examine "Tool for Cover-Up"

Despite all but admitting it kidnapped and interrogated the wrong guy, the Bush administration shut down the alleged victim’s civil suit against it by declaring the his ordeal to be a state secret that could not be discussed in court.

For civil liberties advocates, the derailment of German citizen Khaled El-Masri’s claim against the CIA is one of the administration’s more egregious misuses of a power known as the state secrets privilege. It allows the administration to petition a judge to dismiss a case on the grounds that it could disclose information that is vital to national security.

Judges can overrule the administration’s concerns, but experts on the matter say they rarely do. And that’s how alleged victims like El-Masri, who says CIA agents kidnapped him, held for five months and beat him, forever lose their day in court.

It’s the kind of vital constitutional question that Americans and the media rarely fail to ignore.  But the Senate Judiciary Committee next week is going to take a closer look at the power -- what Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has called "a tool for cover-up" -- as well as a bipartisan bill that backers hope will guide judges in considering future state secrets claims.

A Justice Department official will testify at the hearing, slated for Feb. 13, and is expected to defend keeping the authority as broad as possible.  He will be joined by several legal scholars.  Both the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and its ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., are sponsors on the state secrets reform bill, along with Kennedy.  It should be interesting.

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