Notorious “Star Chamber” Courts Protect Government Wrongdoing

U.S. Embraces Tool of Despots


starchamberRecently, Mark Hosenball dropped the bombshell that a secret panel of White House Security Council members meets to draw up a “kill list” of American militants. Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote a scathing critique of the panel, comparing it to a notorious English court known as the “Star Chamber.”

“[A] panel operating out of the White House — that meets in total secrecy, with no known law or rules governing what it can do or how it operates — is empowered to place American citizens on a list to be killed by the CIA, which (by some process nobody knows) eventually makes its way to the President, who is the final Decider.  It is difficult to describe the level of warped authoritarianism necessary to cause someone to lend their support to a twisted Star Chamber like that.”

The Star Chamber, an English court dating back to the middle ages, reportedly was named for the stars on the ceiling of the courtroom, located at Westminster Palace.  Over time, it grew increasingly powerful and corrupt.  By the 17th century, under Charles I, it had become a vehicle for prosecuting political dissent.  The court’s procedures made it virtually impossible for defendants to get a fair hearing and served as a rubber stamp for the monarchy.

“Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses. Evidence was presented in writing. Over time it evolved into a political weapon, a symbol of the misuse and abuse of power by the English monarchy and courts.”

The Star Chamber also punished religious dissent, ultimately driving the Puritans to seek refuge in North America’s wilderness. Their descendents would form a new nation and endow it with laws that prohibited Star Chamber abuses. Today, “star chamber” is a pejorative term used to describe any administrative body with “strict, arbitrary rulings and secretive proceedings” that “cast doubt on the legitimacy of the proceedings.”  Notwithstanding its infamous past, the Star Chamber appeals to government officials who abhor accountability.

The panel that authorized the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki is the most public U.S. example of a star chamber--but it is far from the only one.  The federal government operates a network of star chamber courts administered by government agencies for the purpose of hearing appeals from military and civilian federal employees stripped of their security clearances. Many of those employees are whistleblowers who have disclosed government wrongdoing, thus implicating senior officials.  Senior officials use the star chambers to punish whistleblowers, to discredit their disclosures and to discourage other employees from exposing negligence, waste and corruption.  Existing whistleblower protection laws are helpless to protect federal employees with security clearances from agency reprisal.

Security clearance star chambers violate the U.S. Constitution’s due process protections by presidential order--Executive Order (E.O.) 12968.  These courts go by a variety of names.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Star Chamber is the “Personnel Security Review Board.” The Department of Defense (DOD) calls its star chamber the “Department of Hearings and Appeals.” Each federal agency interprets the executive order differently, and some—for example, USDA—actually provide less due process than E.O. 12968 allows.  All are offensive to modern notions of justice, but none have been held accountable.  Government officials argue that national security requires the suspension of due process; but, a close examination of the appeals process shows that the government’s claim is a fraud. [Read more...]