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Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets

Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets

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by Barry Siegel

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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


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 available the top-secret information the families had sought long ago, in vain. The documents, it turned out, contained no national securitysecrets but rather a shocking chronicle of negligence.

Equal parts history, legal drama, and exposé, Claim of Privilege tells the story of this shameful incident, its impact on our nation, and a courageous fight to right a wrong from the past. Placing the story within the context of the time, Siegel draws clear connections between the apocalyptic fears of the early Cold War years and post-9/11 America—and shows the dangerous consequences of this historic cover-up: the violation of civil liberties and the abuse of constitutional protections. By evoking the past, Claim of Privilege illuminates the present. Here is a mesmerizing narrative that indicts what our government is willing to do in the name of national security.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In 1948, three civilian engineers died in the crash of an air force B-29 bomber that was testing a missile guidance system; in their widows' lawsuit, the Supreme Court upheld the air force's refusal to divulge accident reports that it claimed held military secrets. But when the declassified reports surfaced decades later, the only sensitive information in them involved the chronic tendency of B-29 engines to catch fire, egregious lapses in maintenance and safety procedures, and gross pilot error. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Siegel (Shades of Gray) ably recounts the case, a scandal and cover-up with grave constitutional implications. The 1953 Supreme Court decision gave the executive branch sweeping authority to conceal information under national security claims without judicial review, a precedent confirmed when the Court refused to reopen the case in 2003. (The author notes the influence of Cold War anxieties and the 9/11 attacks in these rulings.) Siegel insists on decorating the story with often extraneous human-interest profiles of everyone involved. But his is an engrossing exposition of the facts and legal issues in the case, which produced a disturbing legacy of government secrecy and misconduct still very much alive. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Siegel (A Death in White Bear Lake), a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has written an excellent book, as fast-paced and engrossing as a novel but telling a true story. In 1953, U.S. v. Reynolds established a "state secrets privilege" for the federal government that allowed government officials to withhold information it believed to be a threat to national security without having to provide evidence or proof. The story began in October 1948 when three civilian engineers died in the crash of a B-29 Air Force jet over Waycross, GA. Siegel extensively details the background of the court case in which the surviving widows filed suit against the government, claiming that U.S. Air Force negligence caused the crash. Citing national security concerns, the air force refused to release an accident report that plaintiffs said was proof of the negligence. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the air force. Using U.S. v. Reynolds and its fascinating history as a center point, Siegel discusses the state secrets privilege and its applications up to the present. The book's memorable characters and compelling subject make it essential reading. Recommended for all libraries.
—Becky Kennedy

Kirkus Reviews
How a landmark Supreme Court ruling that established the state secrets privilege was challenged 50 years later. In 1948, an Air Force test flight crashed into the swamps of Florida, killing three civilian contractors on board. Consequently, their families sued the government to determine what went wrong. Citing executive privilege and national security, the Air Force refused to divulge any information and was eventually vindicated by the Supreme Court in its 1953 ruling, U.S. v. Reynolds. In 2003, a widow and three children of the dead contractors petitioned to have the ruling overturned, claiming the Air Force had lied to cover up negligence. Giving the increasing importance of Reynolds (the Bush administration cites it constantly), this should be a fascinating story. Regrettably, Pulitzer-winner Siegel (Lines of Defense, 2002, etc.) clutters it with irrelevant detail, such as where minor figures in the drama went to college and what they studied. He also fails to bring to life the major players, who read like stock characters in an intergenerational TV drama. Reynolds had a dramatic impact on American policy during the past 50 years, Siegel rightly points out; it's frequently cited by government officials seeking to keep their doings hidden from prying journalists and aggrieved plaintiffs-or, if you buy the government's version, evil terrorists. The author loses these complexities amid the minutiae of the case as it wound it way through the courts, from '48 to '53 and '03 to '07, when the Supreme Court again ruled against the contractors' families. That decision suggests how greatly the first Reynolds decision has shaped current government policy and behavior, as well as judicialoversight of it, but Siegel never lifts his eyes from the details long enough to provide the in-depth analysis this important case demands. Lacks drama, intrigue and insight.
Jeffrey Toobin
“Barry Siegel’s Claim of Privilege uncovers the mystery behind a famous Supreme Court case, reveals its poignant human cost, and offers a timely reminder of the perils of government secrecy.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Claim of Privilege

A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets

By Barry Siegel
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008

Barry Siegel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060777029

Chapter One

Banshee Days

June '46-July '47

The union of Bob and Patricia Reynolds happened in an instant. One day in September 1946, Patricia's mother announced that her friend May had a young man she wanted Patricia to meet. The young man was renting a room in May's Indianapolis boarding-house. He'd just graduated from Purdue with a degree in mechanical engineering and had landed a job at RCA. He'd grown up near Springfield, Massachusetts, and knew no one in Indianapolis.

No way, Patricia told her mother. She was a year out of high school, the only child of older working-class parents, a Protestant growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. Her father, a display-advertising manager at a Indianapolis newspaper, had died of a heart attack when she was fourteen, and that had increased her isolation. She was happy to be alone, watching.

No way, she repeated.

You are going to meet this young man, her mother insisted.

Bob Reynolds came over that night. Patricia acted aloof. She was writing a letter in her room when he arrived, to a Cornell boy she'd met at a USO dance. Her mother finally came in, giving her the evil eye. Patricia put down her pen and walked into the living room.

She felt something the moment she saw him. The expression on his face was just so warm and friendly. He glowed. They went out that night to a movie. They were an attractive pair—he with a ruddy smiling face, she radiant with shoulder-length hair. After the movie, they sat on the Circle in downtown Indianapolis singing "Tell Me Why" in two-part harmony, her voice a sultry contralto. Tell me wh-y the stars do shine, / Tel-l me why the ivy twines, / tel-l me why the sky's so blue, / And I will tell you just why I love you. They sang a lot in those first weeks. She'd been planning to go to art school in New York, but her plans changed. Three months after she met Bob, they married, on November 30, 1946. She was eigh-teen, he twenty-one.

The world beckoned. That they had started life together in perilous times barely registered. If enemies of America seemed to be rising everywhere—if the United States faced mounting threats despite the surrender of Germany and Japan just months earlier—the Reynoldses did not notice.

That February, Korea had split into U.S.-supported South Korea and Soviet-controlled North Korea. Also that February, the State Department's expert in Moscow, George Kennan, had sent his Long Telegram, warning of the Soviet Union's hunger for "capitalistic encirclement" and "total destruction of rival power." In March, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill spoke for the first time of an implacable threat to freedom that lay behind a Communist "iron curtain." In May, a civil war erupted in China between Chinese Nationalists and the Communist Chinese forces led by Mao Zedong. Later that month, an FBI confidential memo reported the existence of an "enormous" Soviet espionage ring in Washington, D.C. By autumn, there was consensus in the country that the Kremlin represented a treacherous enemy seeking world domination. The Cold War had begun.

Bob and Pat Reynolds felt the impact only indirectly. What touched them was the United States's need for new, sophisticated ways to defend itself. After World War II, control of the seas would no longer be enough; the country had to master the skies. Driven by a sense of urgency, the military began to focus on the development of long-range guided missiles. A fierce rivalry ensued: The Army Ground Forces, the Army Air Forces, and the Naval Forces all wanted to manage this postwar program. The Air Forces, denouncing the other services' forays as a "flagrant violation," decided to seize the lead by staging a public demonstration—by claiming they had already developed a long-range guided missile. The order came from Commanding General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold: "The purpose of the project is to impress upon the public mind the fact that Army Air Forces have, and can use immediately, some form of guided missile."

So began Project Banshee. Whoever selected the name, whatever its provenance, the term carries an eerie resonance: In Irish mythology, a banshee is a "fairy woman"—sometimes young, sometimes matronly, sometimes an old hag—whose mournful wails herald an imminent death.

RCA, awarded a contract by the Air Forces in June 1946, took on a central role in this project. In early 1947, RCA assigned Bob Reynolds to Banshee. For the Reynoldses, this meant moving to Florida, where tests were about to begin. They flew there in an Air Force B-17, Pat smuggled aboard, posing as an Army nurse. The plane had no seats or air pressure; they used oxygen masks. When they were about to land, the pilot asked Pat if she wanted a thrill. She crawled into the Plexiglas nose cone. It was her first plane ride.

In Florida, they lived by the water in Delray Beach, a sleepy coastal town between Palm Beach and Fort. Lauderdale, not for from an Air Force installation in Boca Raton. Home was a garage apartment that did regular battle with mildew. They didn't talk much about Banshee. Pat knew it involved drone planes controlled remotely by mother ships. She knew also that a man named Al Palya was the project supervisor, but she never said more than a hello to him; he was the big shot. Life with Bob—not his work—claimed her attention. She'd traveled outside Indiana only once before and found Florida exotic. She and Bob would rise early and go out walking, watching the sand crabs. When she looked back on those Florida days, not one single other person came to mind.

Al Palya certainly was the big shot. An engineer, he supervised a team assigned to develop the computerized radar system that would guide drone "missile" aircraft to precision targets thousands of miles away. He'd joined RCA in 1946, after three years at Minneapolis-Honeywell designing an automatic pilot system. At Honeywell, he'd impressed everyone with his ability to solve problems, to build compact analog computers, to put a lot of wires into small boxes. His closest colleagues there, Walt Frick and Bill Ergen, thought Al Palya extraordinary—no one had his type of imagination or drive.


Excerpted from Claim of Privilege by Barry Siegel Copyright © 2008 by Barry Siegel. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Jeffrey Toobin
“Barry Siegel’s Claim of Privilege uncovers the mystery behind a famous Supreme Court case, reveals its poignant human cost, and offers a timely reminder of the perils of government secrecy.”

Meet the Author

The author of five previous books and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, Barry Siegel is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He now directs the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine, where he is a professor of English. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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I was amazed by the virtuosity with which Siegel put this very complex story together. The characters come to life vividly, and are pictured with wonderful clarity and animation. I could go on at great length about this aspect of the book. But the underlying punch - huge impact, actually - is created by the patient unraveling of enormous political issues which are laid out sensitively and humanely. I have no doubt this book will enjoy an increasingly significant impact on our society. It also has the smell of a Harrison Ford movie.