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Claim of Privilege

A 2008 nonfiction book by Barry Siegel

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Fascinating case that is often cited as being responsible for our government's "culture of secrecy".

  • Nov 3, 2009
The year was 1948.  As far as most Americans were concerned World War II was now in the rear view mirror and people were busy making up for lost time.  Couples were building homes and having babies in ever increasing numbers.  Prosperity abounded.  It seemed that happy days were indeed here again.   Yet there were troubling new threats looming on the horizon that those in our government and military found very compelling.  The Korean peninsula had been politically divided at the conclusion of World War II and the threat of armed conflict in that region of the world appeared inevitable.  Meanwhile, there were escalating political, military and economic tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that would eventually come to be known as the Cold War. This was not a time to rest on our laurels.  Beginning in 1946, the Defense Department entered into a contract with RCA to develop a guidance system for a pilot-less aircraft. They called it Project Banshee.  The goal, in an era before intercontinental missiles, was to launch drone planes that could travel long distances and drop bombs on pinpoint targets.  Test flights would begin just a year later on the Air Force's rather unreliable B-29 aircraft.  On October 6, 1948 three RCA engineers joined an Air Force crew on one such test flight.  Sadly, one of the engines caught fire and this plane would ultimately crash into a field in Waycross, GA.   All three of the engineers were killed as well as a number of military personnel.  The accident report prepared by Air Force investigators clearly indicated that pilot error was a factor in the crash. In addition it was learned that there were numerous mechanical problems with this particular aircraft. This mission should never have been allowed to take off! "Claim of Privilege:  A Mysterious Plane Crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets" recalls the remarkable series of events that ensued following this little known plane crash.  It turns out that there was a lot more at stake here than simply compensating the families for the loss of their loved ones.
For a variety of very dubious reasons the Air Force was extremely reluctant to release the facts surrounding this case.  They steadfastly refused to produce the accident report citing "state secrets" and this in essence was the crux of this case.  The families of Al Palya, Bob Reynolds and William Brauner, the three civilian engineers who were killed in this mishap, had no idea why the accident occurred.  Release of the accident report was crucial to their understanding of what had happened to their loved ones.  In 1949 the widows of these engineers approached renowned attorney Charles Biddle of the Philadelphia law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath about representing them in this case.  Biddle was a former World War I fighter pilot and was intrigued by the issues presented in the case. None of the parties involved could ever have imagined that the legal wrangling surrounding this incident would ultimately span more than half a century.

"Claim of Privilege:  A Mysterious Plane Crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets" chronicles this case as it originally unfolded in the early 1950's.  Throughout the litigation the Air Force continued to cite "state secrets" and refused to release the accident report.  The case would ultimately wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Before the Supreme Court the U.S. government continued to maintain that releasing the accident report would have a detrimental effect on national security. Given the prevailing political climate the majority of the Justices bought the government's argument.  This decision would prove to have serious unintended ramifications for our nation. Over the ensuing decades the Executive branch would choose to classify more and more documents as "secret".

Fast forward now to the year 2000.  Judy Palya, daughter of crash victim Al Palya, was surfing on the internet when she discovered something quite remarkable. Unbeknownst to the families all Air Force accident reports prior to 1956 had been declassified by the Clinton administration in 1996. For a nominal fee she could obtain a hard copy of the 200+ page accident report. What Judy discovered in this report was shocking and would pave the way for another round of litigation. It was quite obvious that the U.S. Government had lied to the Supreme Court about this case back in the 1950's!  Nearly a half century after the original case was litigated the law firm of Drinker, Biddle & Reath would again become involved in an attempt to correct this huge miscarriage of justice that had far reaching consequences both for the families of the victims and for the American people as well. This decision seems to have paved the way for future administrations to greatly expand the culture of secrecy in Washington, particularly after the 9/11 attacks.  

"Claim of Privilege:  A Mysterious Plane Crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets" chronicles this remarkable case from start to finish.  Author Barry Siegel has given us an exceptionally well-written and meticulously documented book.  This just might be the best book I have read in 2009.  I could not put it down.   "Claim of Privilege" certainly contains all of the elements of a great motion picture.    Very highly recommended! 

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Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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About this book


In the tradition of A Civil Action and Gideon's Trumpet, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Siegel unfolds the shocking true story behind the Supreme Court case that forever changed the balance of power in America.

On October 6, 1948, a trio of civilian engineers joined a U.S. Air Force crew on a B-29 Superfortress, whose mission was to test secret navigational equipment. Shortly after takeoff the plane crashed, killing all three engineers and six others. In June 1949, the widows of the engineers filed suit against the government. What had happened to their men? they asked. Why had these civilians been aboard an Air Force plane in the first place?

But the Air Force, at the dawn of the Cold War, refused to hand over the accident reports and witness statements, claiming the documents contained classified information that would threaten national security. The case made its way up to the Supreme Court, which in 1953 sided with the Air Force in United States v. Reynolds. This landmark decision formally recognized the "state secrets" privilege, a legal precedent that has since been used to conceal conduct, withhold documents, block troublesome litigation, and, most recently, detain terror suspects without due-process protections.

Even with the case closed, the families of those who died in the crash never stopped wondering what had happened in that B-29. They finally had their answer a half century later: In 2000 they learned that the government was now making ...

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ISBN-10: 0060777036
ISBN-13: 978-0060777036
Genre: Social Science
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Date Published: June 9, 2009
Format: Paperback
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