Message posted by Hank on June 04, 2002 at 14:31:20 PST:

Tuesday, June 04, 2002
Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

Federal judges to hear case involving Area 51


A panel of federal judges in San Francisco will hear arguments this month about allegations that Department of Justice attorneys improperly used national security to hide embarrassing statements when a Las Vegas judge heard complaints filed in 1994 by Area 51 workers.

The hearing is scheduled for June 14 before a three-judge panel in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. It stems in part from a request by the Review-Journal for the panel to determine whether the Justice Department abused the state secrets privilege when it convinced U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro to allow redactions in previously sealed court documents.

"Our basic position is that the court has to review the redacted information and make a determination as to whether or not the government's justifications are legitimate and whether the government's claims to national security are supported by the material," said attorney Roger Myers, who is representing the Review-Journal in the case.

Other than acknowledging the existence of a classified installation, the government argues presidential orders keep secret all information about what is commonly known as Area 51, the Air Force's Groom Lake base located 90 miles north of Las Vegas.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley also had claimed previously that government attorneys improperly used the military secrets privilege. He said overly broad standards were being used to suppress information.

Turley filed lawsuits in 1994 against federal defense, environmental and intelligence agencies on behalf of two widows and some former workers from Area 51. The workers claimed they were injured from inhaling toxic chemicals that were burned at the base during the 1980s in defiance of environmental laws that prohibit open-pit burning of hazardous wastes.

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal in those cases, upholding a ruling by the 9th Circuit that the workers and widows were not entitled to learn what hazardous substances existed at the installation or how they were handled.

On Aug. 17, the Review-Journal filed a motion to unseal the court record. The 9th Circuit instructed Pro to release the record, and the judge did so. However, large portions of the transcripts contained in the 8-inch-high stack of documents were blacked out.

The Review-Journal's motion also challenged the redacting, arguing that information in the court briefs has "been litigated in open court for more than six years."

The court documents obtained by the Review-Journal show much of the dialogue and particularly statements made by Justice Department attorney Stephen Samuels are blacked out of the transcript. Some of his comments were made at the onset of the case.

In an interview Monday, Turley said he was privy to all the information at issue.

"There is no question in our mind that the material redacted by the government has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with individual accountability for false statements given to the public," Turley said.

He noted that "the false statements in question make no reference whatsoever to any program or component of Area 51."

Later, Turley said although he couldn't discuss specific redactions, "we have supplied the court with literally dozens of redactions of material that the government has left unredacted either in the court transcript or other documents."

He said he hopes this most recent challenge will resurrect previous issues in the Area 51 workers' cases.

"We are hopeful that the Court of Appeals will again reverse Judge Pro and require the unsealing of some of this information as well as other issues on appeal," Turley said.

"The workers remain committed to show the public what the government did in this case," he said.

One argument in the case centers on a widely circulated Air Force manual about the base, where former workers have said high-tech U.S. aircraft have been tested against foreign planes and radar systems.

"The manual had been circulating publicly for at least a year with no hint of protest from the government," according to the Review-Journal's Aug. 17 motion. With the manual still posted on the Internet and not marked "classified" or "secret" the government classified it in the court record.

A Justice Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment when asked late Monday about the allegations and the June 14 hearing.

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