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KAI RYSSDAL: Now here's a tricky one: How do you sue the CIA?
The answer is you really don't, at least not in cases where the government can claim something called the "state secrets privilege." So the American Civil Liberties Union is trying something else. The ACLU has been trying to hold the government accountable for what it calls the illegal kidnapping of suspected terrorists. The group claims innocent people have been flown off to secret overseas prisons, where they've been systematically tortured. Having had no luck in court against the CIA itself, today the ACLU tried something new. It's sued a division of Boeing. Marketplace's Bob Moon explains.
BOB MOON: The slogan of Boeing's Jeppeson Dataplane division is, "Making every mission possible."
The ACLU says the firm made it possible for the CIA to carry out a clandestine program known as "extraordinary rendition," snatching terror suspects in foreign countries and spiriting them off to secret locations.
Jeppeson's business is providing customers with flight plans that include navigational headings and fuel requirements. But that's as much as Boeing spokesman Tim Neale would tell us today:
TIM NEALE: The flight-planning services that Jeppeson provides to its clients are all provided on a confidential basis. And so we really aren't at liberty to talk about customers or identify who Jeppeson's customers are without their permission.
The ACLU cites an article in The New Yorker magazine. It quoted a senior Jeppeson official as telling an internal board meeting that the company was planning all of what he allegedly called "the torture flights."
ACLU attorney Steven Watt says there's no way the firm couldn't have known what was going on:
STEVEN WATT: They had their head in the sand if alarm bells were not being raised that there was something untoward here. And what we're alleging is that, knowingly, Jeppeson aided the CIA in their torture and indefinite detention.
Proving that in court is another matter, and the ACLU may never even get the chance. Today's action may ultimately amount to little more than the legal equivalent of shouting and pointing.
Duke University professor Scott Silliman says the CIA is likely to invoke the government's "state secrets privilege." It's been recognized by the courts since World War Two and is virtually automatic.
SCOTT SILLIMAN: When they do that, the judge can quite probably shut the lawsuit down, rather than risk getting involved in state secrets.
The ACLU's attorney told us that the organization is prepared to fight that move vigorously.
In Los Angeles, I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.