While the nation remains transfixed on the ongoing legal showdown between Congress and Attorney General William Barr over the Mueller Report, a much less known controversy regarding the attorney general has continued to unfold, as the ACLU detailed in a blog post published on Friday. This one has less to do with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and more to do with the social media platform Twitter, not to mention American privacy in general.
For five years, Twitter has attempted to publicize a transparency report which would include statistics detailing the frequency with which the U.S. government requests user data from Twitter. The government continues to push back against that report being made public.
As far back as 2014, Twitter sent its initial report in for review, with the government telling the company that they could not publicize it. The reasoning, they said, was that the report contained classified information. Twitter responded with a lawsuit claiming that blocking the release of the report constituted a violation of the company’s First Amendment rights.
The government then claimed in a secret and sealed brief presented to the judge alone (not Twitter’s lawyers), that substantial harm could come as a result of Twitter publishing its transparency report, the ACLU explained.
The judge, however, was not persuaded. The case, Twitter, Inc. v. Barr, was dismissed.
For years, Twitter has been trying to make public a transparency report about how often the US government seeks to spy on users.
Now, Attorney General Barr is invoking the “state secrets privilege” in an effort to shut down the lawsuit altogether. https://t.co/tEInnGxIck
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 10, 2019
The attorney general, however, was not so easily dissuaded. Barr has now invoked so-called “state secrets privilege” as he prohibits Twitter from accessing information from the sealed declaration that led to the suit’s dismissal. However, the ACLU argues, Barr’s attempt to use such privilege for this reason is both inappropriate and dangerous, with a potential to lead down a slippery slope when it comes to protecting allegedly classified material.
“The state secrets privilege is a powerful tool that the government invokes to withhold evidence from litigation — and even force the dismissal of a case in the name of national security. Because the privilege can result in such severe consequences, it should be reserved for the most exceptional cases,” says the ACLU. “To justify its use, the government has to show that any disclosure of the evidence — even disclosure limited to lawyers with security clearances — creates an unacceptable risk of harm to national security. It’s a high bar, and the government has come nowhere close to meeting it in this case.”
As the case proceeds, the ACLU will continue to argue in favor of the release of the report, adding yet another showdown involving the attorney general.