Private Access to Government Information.

Private par- ties may seek to obtain information from the government either to assist in defense to criminal charges brought by the government or in civil cases to use in either a plaintiff ’s or defendant’s capacity in suits with the government or between private parties.615 In criminal cases, a defendant is guaranteed compulsory process to obtain witnesses by the Sixth Amendment and by the due process clause is guaranteed access to relevant exculpatory information in the possession of the prosecution.616 Generally speaking, when the prosecution is confronted with a judicial order to turn over to a defendant information that it does not wish to make available, the prosecution has the option of dropping the prosecution and thus avoiding disclosure.617 But that alternative may not always be available; in the Watergate prosecution, only by revoking the authority of the Special Prosecutor and bringing the cases back into the confines of the Department of Justice could this possibility have been realized.618

In civil cases the government may invoke the state secrets privilege against revealing military or other secrets. In United States v. Reynolds,619 a tort claim brought against the United States for compensation for the deaths of civilians in the crash of an Air Force plane testing secret electronics equipment, plaintiffs sought discovery of the Air Force’s investigation report on the accident, and the government resisted on a claim of privilege as to the nondisclosure of military secrets. The Court accepted the Government’s claim, holding that courts must determine whether under the circumstances the claim of privilege was appropriate without going so far as to force disclosure of the thing the privilege is designed to protect. The private litigant’s showing of necessity for the information should govern in each case how far the trial court should probe. Where the necessity is strong, the court should require a strong showing of the appropriateness of the privilege claim, but once the court is satisfied of the appropriateness the privilege must prevail no matter how compelling the need.620

Reynolds dealt with an evidentiary privilege. There are other circumstances, however, in which cases must be “dismissed on the pleadings without ever reaching the question of evidence.”621 In holding that federal courts should refuse to entertain a breach of contract action seeking enforcement of an agreement to compensate someone who performed espionage services during the Civil War, the Court in Totten v. United States declared that “public policy forbids the maintenance of any suit in a court of justice, the trial of which would inevitably lead to the disclosure of matters which the law itself regards as confidential.”622

Footnotes

615
There are also, of course, instances of claimed access for other purposes, for which the Freedom of Information Act, 80 Stat. 383 (1966), 5 U.S.C. § 552, provides generally for public access to governmental documents. In 522(b), however, nine types of information are exempted from coverage, several of which relate to the types as to which executive privilege has been asserted, such as matter classified pursuant to executive order, interagency or intra-agency memoranda or letters, and law enforcement investigatory files. See, e.g., EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73 (1973); FTC v. Grolier, Inc., 462 U.S. 19 (1983); CIA v. Sims, 471 U.S. 159 (1985); John Doe Agency v. John Doe Corp., 493 U.S. 146 (1989); Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 977 (1974). [Back to text]
616
See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Rule 16, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The earliest judicial dispute involving what later became known as executive privilege arose in United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 30 and 187 (C.C.D. Va. 1807), in which defendant sought certain exculpatory material from President Jefferson. Dispute continues with regard to the extent of presidential compliance, but it appears that the President was in substantial compliance with outstanding orders if not in full compliance. [Back to text]
617
E.g., Alderman v. United States, 394 U.S. 165 (1968). [Back to text]
618
Thus, defendant in United States v. Ehrlichman, 376 F. Supp. 29 (D.D.C. 1974), was held entitled to access to material in the custody of the President wherein the President’s decision to dismiss the prosecution would probably have been unavailing. [Back to text]
619
345 U.S. 1 (1953). [Back to text]
620
345 U.S. at 7–8, 9–10, 11. Withholding of information relating to governmental employees’ clearances, disciplines, or discharges often raises claims of such privilege. E.g., Webster v. Doe, 486 U.S. 592 (1988); Department of the Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518 (1988). After the Court approved a governmental secrecy agreement imposed on CIA employees, Snepp v. United States, 444 U.S. 507 (1980), the government expanded its secrecy program with respect to classified and “classifiable” information. When Congress sought to curb this policy, the Reagan Administration convinced a federal district judge to declare the restrictions void as invasive of the President’s constitutional power to manage the executive. National Fed’n of Fed. Employees v. United States, 688 F. Supp. 671 (D.D.C. 1988), vacated and remanded sub nom. American Foreign Service Ass’n v. Garfinkel, 490 U.S. 153 (1989). For similar assertions in the context of plaintiffs suing the government for interference with their civil and political rights during the protests against the Vietnam War, in which the plaintiffs were generally denied the information in the possession of the government under the state-secrets privilege, see Halkin v. Helms, 598 F.2d 1 (D.C. Cir. 1978); Ellsberg v. Mitchell, 709 F.2d 51 (D.C. Cir. 1983). For review and analysis, see Quint, The Separation of Powers Under Carter, 62 TEX. L. REV. 785, 875–80 (1984). [Back to text]
621
Reynolds, 345 U.S. at 11, n.26. [Back to text]
622
92 U.S. 105, 107 (1875). See also Tenet v. Doe, 544 U.S. 1, 9 (2005) (reiterating and applying Totten’s “broader holding that lawsuits premised on alleged espionage agreements are altogether forbidden”). The Court in Tenet distinguished Webster v. Doe on the basis of “an obvious difference . . . between a suit brought by an acknowledged (though covert) employee of the CIA and one filed by an alleged former spy.” Id. at 10. [Back to text]