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Secrets of state -- matters the revelation of which reasonably could be seen as a threat to the military or diplomatic interests of the nation -- are absolutely privileged from disclosure in the courts. Although the courts in evaluating claims of the privilege may take cognizance of the need for the information demonstrated by the party seeking disclosure, such need is a factor only in determining the extent of the court's inquiry into the appropriateness of the claim. Once the court is satisfied that the information poses a reasonable danger to secrets of state, even the most compelling necessity cannot overcome the claim of privilege.
Appellant individual and organizational antiwar protestors contended they had been deprived of their federal constitutional and statutory rights when they were subjected to surveillance and wiretapping during the Vietnam War, and they sued appellees for legal and equitable relief. During the pretrial discovery phase of the proceedings, appellants sought disclosure of certain documents and computer files allegedly detailing appellees' surveillance and wiretapping activities. Appellees objected, arguing that the state secrets privilege barred disclosure of the materials. The district judge agreed, and thereafter dismissed appellants' complaint. Appellants challenged the decision.
Did the state secrets privilege bar the disclosure of the materials in question?
The court affirmed the decision, holding that the appellees had met their burden of showing that the material in question, if disclosed, would seriously compromise the nation's national security. According to the court, secrets of state – matters, the revelation of which reasonably could be seen as a threat to the military or diplomatic interests of the nation, were absolutely privileged from disclosure in the courts.