The Shadow of State Secrets

141 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2010 Last revised: 25 Jul 2014

Date Written: March 8, 2010


The shadow of state secrets casts itself longer than previously acknowledged. Between 2001 and 2009 the government asserted state secrets in more than 100 cases, while in scores more litigants appealed to the doctrine in anticipation of government intervention.

Contractor cases ranged from breach of contract, patent disputes, and trade secrets, to fraud and employment termination. Wrongful death, personal injury, and negligence suits kept pace, extending beyond product liability to include infrastructure and services, as well as conduct of war. In excess of fifty telecommunications suits linked to the NSA warrantless wiretapping program emerged 2006-2009, with the government acting, variously, as plaintiff, intervenor, and defendant. In cases stemming from allegations of Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations, torture, environmental degradation, breach of espionage contracts, and defamation, the government defended both the suit and state secrets assertions. The doctrine also played a role in the criminal context.

Collectively, these cases underscore the importance of looking more carefully at how the doctrine actually works. They also suggest the emergence of a new form of “greymail”: companies embedded in the state may threaten to air legally - or politically-damaging information should the government refuse to support their state secrets assertion. And they challenge the dominant paradigm, which tends to cabin state secrets as an evidentiary rule within executive privilege, suggesting in contrast that it has evolved to become a powerful litigation tool, wielded by both private and public actors.

Keywords: criminal law, civil law, state secrets, national security law, torts, contracts, constitutional law

JEL Classification: H56, K12, K13, K14

Suggested Citation

K. Donohue, Laura, The Shadow of State Secrets (March 8, 2010). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 159, pp. 77-216, 2010, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-10, Available at SSRN:

Laura K. Donohue (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202 662-9282 (Phone)
202 662-9282 (Fax)

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