By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday it will adopt a new policy that could limit the government's claims of state secrets to block lawsuits on national security grounds, a Bush-era tactic kept by the Obama administration in some high-profile cases.
The department said it will not invoke state secrets for the purpose of "concealing government wrongdoing or avoiding embarrassment to government agencies or officials."
Department officials said the new policy will take effect on October 1 and will not affect current cases such as those in which the Obama administration has decided to continue the position of the previous administration.
The U.S. government in some cases has invoked state secret claims, asserting that allowing a lawsuit to proceed could jeopardize national security. Such cases included legal challenges to the domestic spying program using wiretaps that former President George W. Bush began after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The Obama administration continued to take the position that the state secrets argument should stop a lawsuit by an Islamic charity whose lawyers claim they were subjected to illegal government wiretapping.
And the administration repeated the claim in a lawsuit that accuses a Boeing Co. unit of providing support and aircraft to the U.S. government to fly terrorism suspects abroad to secret prisons.
The new policy stemmed from a review ordered earlier this year by Attorney General Eric Holder.
'THE NARROWEST WAY POSSIBLE'
Holder said in a statement that the new policy "sets out clear procedures that will provide greater accountability and ensure the state secrets privilege is invoked only when necessary and in the narrowest way possible."
The Justice Department said a state secrets claim will be invoked in court only when "genuine and significant harm to national defense or foreign relations is at stake."
The policy also will set up a new Justice Department review committee, and will require Holder's approval before the claim can be invoked.
Some members of Congress, civil liberties groups, and even federal judges have criticized both the Bush White House and the Obama administration for invoking state secrets claims.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, welcomed the new policy and said it includes several concepts from legislation that he and others had introduced.
Senator Russ Feingold, another Judiciary Committee Democrat, said, "While I am pleased that the Obama administration recognizes that the Bush approach was a mistake, its new policy is disappointing because it still amounts to an approach of 'just trust us.'"
Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union said, "On paper, this is a step forward. In court, however, the Obama administration continues to defend a broader view of state secrets put forward by the Bush administration and to demand that federal courts throw out lawsuits filed by victims of torture and illegal surveillance."
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, Editing by David Alexander and Will Dunham)