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 judicial oversight 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.