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Bill Moyers

Investigative Reports 12/22/03

A Crash, Widows And A Secret

This past March, the Justice Department unexpectedly took a trip back in time, thrust into a battle at the heart of the government's ability to keep state secrets--and illustrating the administration's tenacious defense of secrecy itself.

At issue: the 1948 crash of an Air Force B-29 Superfortress bomber on a mission testing military electronics. The widows of three of the nine men killed filed suit against the United States. The Air Force refused to release accident reports, claiming national security would be harmed. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1953 backed the government's ability to claim state secrets. The pivotal decision became the foundation on which the state secrets privilege rests.

Now it turns out that the national security claim may have been bogus. Recently, the daughter of one of the men discovered the now-declassified accident reports. "They contained nothing approaching a military secret," says her attorney, Wilson Brown III. Instead, the reports blame the crash on Air Force negligence--the real reason the government wanted them kept secret, says Brown, who filed an extraordinary appeal to the Supreme Court to reopen the matter. "They lied," Brown says of the Air Force.

That brought the Bush administration into the fray. Justice Department lawyers told the court there was "nothing exceptional" about the revelations concerning the basic facts of the case. They said that allegations of fraud must be viewed from the perspective of a different era, the dawn of the Cold War. The lawyers also argued--incorrectly, court records indicate--that the government never claimed that the records "contained military or state secrets." The Justice Department declined requests for comment. The Supreme Court declined to jump back in. The foundation stands. -Christopher H. Schmitt and Edward T. Pound