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Wilson v. Libby

August 12, 2008


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 06cv01258).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sentelle, Chief Judge

Argued May 9, 2008

Before: SENTELLE, Chief Judge, HENDERSON and ROGERS, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Chief Judge SENTELLE.

Opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part filed by Circuit Judge ROGERS.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush reported that "[t]he British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."*fn1 Those sixteen words set off a series of events which resulted in the disclosure of Valerie Plame Wilson's previously covert status at the Central Intelligence Agency. Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, have filed this action for damages to remedy the injuries they allege they suffered because of that disclosure. Defendants are the United States and four Executive Branch officials - Vice President Richard B. Cheney, former Senior Advisor to the President Karl C. Rove, former Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the Vice President I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Jr., and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage. On motions to dismiss, the district court dismissed all claims. We affirm.


We accept the factual allegations in the Amended Complaint as true for purposes of this appeal. See Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993).

During the spring of 2003, after President George W. Bush informed the Nation that "[t]he British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," there was much speculation in the press about whether the uranium allegation was credible and whether individuals at the White House were aware of questions about its credibility when the State of the Union address was given. On May 6, 2003, The New York Times published the first article questioning the veracity of the claim. That article by Nicholas Kristof cited as its source a "former ambassador" who had traveled to Niger in early 2002 and reported back to the Central Intelligence Agency ("CIA") and the State Department that the uranium "allegations were unequivocally wrong and based on forged documents." Am. Compl. ¶ 19b.

The Vice President's Chief of Staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Jr., contacted the State Department and asked for information about the Niger trip reported in The New York Times. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research was directed to prepare a report about the travel and an Under Secretary kept Libby updated about its progress. The Under Secretary informed Libby that the former ambassador was Joseph Wilson. In June 2003, Libby was further advised by the Under Secretary and by a senior official at the CIA that Valerie Plame Wilson was Joseph Wilson's wife, that she worked at the CIA, and that some thought that she helped plan Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger. Vice President Cheney also told Libby that Valerie Plame Wilson worked at the CIA in the Counterproliferation Division.

On June 12, 2003, The Washington Post published an article critical of the uranium claim based on the report of a retired ambassador who had traveled to Niger. Another article was published on June 19, 2003, in The New Republic. Entitled "The First Casualty: The Selling of the Iraq War," the article alleged that the Vice President's office had prompted the former ambassador's trip to Niger and that, after the trip, administration officials "'knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie.'" Am. Compl. ¶ 19k (quoting Spencer Ackerman & John B. Judis, The First Casualty: The Selling of the Iraq War, NEW REPUBLIC, June 30, 2003, at 14). Several news outlets carried the story on July 6, 2003. The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Joseph Wilson entitled "What I Didn't Find in Africa;" The Washington Post published an article based on an interview with Joseph Wilson; and the Meet the Press television show included Joseph Wilson as a guest. Wilson confirmed the prior reports of his travel to Niger in 2002 and his doubts about the uranium claims and said that he had told the administration of his doubts upon his return from Niger.

The administration commenced an effort to rebut the Wilson allegations. In July, Libby talked to Judith Miller of The New York Times and to Matthew Cooper of Time magazine; Karl Rove talked to Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and to Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball;" and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met with reporter Robert Novak. Armitage, who had learned of Valerie Wilson's CIA employment from a State Department memo, told Novak that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA on issues relating to weapons of mass destruction. Novak then wrote an article that was published in several newspapers, including The Washington Post and the Chicago Sun Times, on July 14, 2003. In the article, he wrote that "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." Am. Compl. ¶ 14. That article, Valerie Wilson contends, "destroyed her cover as a classified CIA employee." Id.

The Wilsons filed a complaint in district court seeking money damages from Vice President Cheney, Libby, and Rove for injuries allegedly suffered because of the disclosure of Valerie Wilson's employment at the CIA. They amended their complaint on September 13, 2006, to add Armitage as a defendant. The Wilsons seek damages for constitutional violations under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), and for the invasion of their privacy under District of Columbia tort law.

The district court dismissed all of their claims. Wilson v. Libby, 498 F. Supp. 2d 74 (D.D.C. 2007). The court held that the Wilsons failed to state a Bivens claim upon which relief could be granted because special factors counsel against creating a Bivens remedy in this case. The Wilsons' Bivens claims were based on alleged violations of their Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection of the laws, of Joseph Wilson's First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and of Valerie Wilson's Fifth Amendment rights to privacy and property, with each claim based on the disclosure of personal information covered by the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a. Because this Court has held that the Privacy Act is a comprehensive remedial scheme, Chung v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 333 F.3d 273, 274 (D.C. Cir. 2003), aff'g in relevant part No. 00-1912 (D.D.C. Sept. 20, 2001), and because the Supreme Court has held that the existence of a comprehensive remedial scheme precludes implication of Bivens remedies even where the scheme does not provide full relief, Wilkie v. Robbins, 127 S.Ct. 2588, 2600-01, 2604-05 (2007); Schweiker v. Chilicky, 487 U.S. 412, 421-22 (1988); Bush v. Lucas, 462 U.S. 367, 388 (1983), the district court concluded that it could not imply a Bivens remedy here. The court further concluded that creating a Bivens remedy in this case would be inappropriate because, if litigated, the case would inevitably require the disclosure of sensitive intelligence information.

The district court held that the invasion of privacy claim also required dismissal. The United States had intervened in the lawsuit with respect to the tort claim and had filed a certification pursuant to the Westfall Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2679(d)(2), that, "at the time of the conduct alleged in the amended complaint the individual federal defendants . . . were each acting within the scope of their employment as employees of the United States." The court found that the Westfall Act certification was proper, meaning that the case must proceed solely against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671--80. Because the Wilsons had not exhausted administrative remedies as required by the FTCA, the court dismissed the claim for lack of jurisdiction. The Wilsons appealed.


The "first and fundamental question" that we are "bound to ask and answer" is whether we have jurisdiction to decide this appeal. Bancoult v. McNamara, 445 F.3d 427, 432 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (citing Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998)) (internal quotation marks omitted). "'The requirement that jurisdiction be established as a threshold matter "springs from the nature and limits of the judicial power of the United States" and is "inflexible and without exception."'" Id. (quoting Steel Co., 523 U.S. at 94--95 (quoting Mansfield, C. & L.M. Ry. v. Swan, 111 U.S. 379, 382 (1884))). Therefore, we must "'address questions pertaining to [our] jurisdiction before proceeding to the merits.'" Id. (quoting Tenet v. Doe, 544 U.S. 1, 6 n.4 (2005)).

The Vice President argues that we do not have jurisdiction under the political question doctrine because this case involves the identity of a covert agent and thereby implicates foreign-policy and national-security decisions that are reserved to the Executive Branch. We conclude that the allegations do not implicate the political question doctrine.

The political question doctrine "'excludes from judicial review those controversies which revolve around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed for resolution to the halls of Congress or the confines of the Executive Branch.'" Bancoult, 445 F.3d at 432 (quoting Japan Whaling Ass'n v. Am. Cetacean Soc'y, 478 U.S. 221, 230 (1986)). The doctrine applies where, "[p]rominent on the surface" of the case is:

[1] a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or [2] a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or [3] the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for non-judicial discretion; or [4] the impossibility of a court's undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government; or [5] an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or [6] the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962). "'[U]nless one of these formulations is inextricable from the case at bar,' we may not dismiss the claims as non-justiciable under the political question doctrine." Bancoult, 445 F.3d at 432--33 (quoting Baker, 369 U.S. at 217).

The doctrine does not apply here. While "decision-making in the fields of foreign policy and national security is textually committed to the political branches of government," Schneider v. Kissinger, 412 F.3d 190, 194 (D.C. Cir. 2005), the Wilsons have not challenged any foreign policy or national security decisions entrusted to the Executive Branch. They have instead challenged disclosures made by high-level executive branch officials when speaking with the press. The disclosures may have implicated national security by identifying a previously covert agent, but the lawsuit itself is not about national security in a manner requiring application of the political question doctrine. We therefore will proceed to the merits of the Wilsons' claims.


The Wilsons argue that the district court erred in holding that special factors preclude implication of a Bivens claim and that the Government's Westfall Act certification was proper. On each legal issue, our review is de novo. See Rasul v. Myers, 512 F.3d 644, 654 (D.C. Cir. 2008).

A. Constitutional Claims

The Wilsons first contest the district court's ruling that Bivens remedies are not available for their injuries. We agree with the district court that we cannot create a Bivens remedy because the comprehensive Privacy Act and the sensitive intelligence information concerns affiliated with this case preclude us from doing so.


We have discretion in some circumstances to create a remedy against federal officials for constitutional violations, but we must decline to exercise that discretion where "special factors counsel[] hesitation" in doing so. See Bivens, 403 U.S. at 396; Spagnola v. Mathis, 859 F.2d 223, 226 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (en banc). In Bivens, the Court implied a remedy where there were no "'special factors counseling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress'" that required "the judiciary [to] decline to exercise its discretion in favor of creating damages remedies against federal officials." Spagnola, 859 F.2d at 226 (quoting Bivens, 403 U.S. at 396). Since Bivens, the Supreme Court has "recognized two more non-statutory damages remedies, the first for employment discrimination in violation of the Due Process Clause, Davis v. Passman, 442 U.S. 228 (1979), and the second for an Eighth Amendment violation by prison officials, Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14 (1980)," but "in most instances[, the Court has] found a Bivens remedy unjustified." Wilkie v. Robbins, 127 S.Ct. 2588, 2597 (2007). Indeed, in its "more recent decisions[, the Supreme Court has] responded cautiously to suggestions that Bivens remedies be extended into new contexts." Chilicky, 487 U.S. at 421.

One "special factor" that precludes creation of a Bivens remedy is the existence of a comprehensive remedial scheme. In Bush v. Lucas, 462 U.S. 367 (1983), the Court held that the federal civil service laws were a "special factor" that precluded additional Bivens remedies because they constituted "an elaborate remedial system that ha[d] been constructed step by step, with careful attention to conflicting policy considerations" and thereby reflected Congressional judgment about the type and magnitude of relief available. Id. at 388--90. The scheme did not provide "complete relief" to the plaintiff, but the Court held that the special factors inquiry does "not concern the merits of the particular remedy that was sought" or its completeness. Id. at 380, 388. Rather, the doctrine "relate[s] to the question of who should decide whether such a remedy should be provided." Id. at 380. "[C]onvinced ...

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