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Context of 'January 9, 2006: Former Government Officials, Law Professors Reject Justice Department’s Arguments that NSA Wiretapping Program Is Legal'

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John Yoo, the Justice Department’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) deputy assistant attorney general, sends a classified memo to Attorney General John Ashcroft justifying warrantless surveillance of US persons. The National Security Agency (NSA)‘s domestic surveillance authorized by President Bush (see October 4, 2001, Early 2002, and December 15, 2005) will come to be publicly referred to as the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP). This is not the first Yoo memo supporting warrantless surveillance (see September 25, 2001), but a 2009 report on the PSP jointly issued by the inspectors general (IGs) of the Department of Defense (DOD), DOJ, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will refer to it as “[t]he first OLC opinion directly supporting the legality of the PSP.” The IGs’ report will quote from and comment on the memo, noting that “deficiencies in Yoo’s memorandum identified by his successors in the Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General later became critical to DOJ’s decision to reassess the legality of the program in 2003.” According to the IGs’ report, Yoo asserts that warrantless surveillance is constitutional as long as it is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment, which only protects against “unreasonable searches and siezures.” On this point, the IGs’ report will note that Yoo’s successors were troubled by his failure to discuss the Supreme Court’s decision in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), which found the president’s wartime authority to be limited. His memo does acknowledge that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “purports to be the exclusive statutory means for conducting electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence,” but asserts that it is only a “safe harbor for electronic surveillance” because it cannot “restrict the president’s ability to engage in warrantless searches that protect the national security.” Yoo also writes that Congress has not “made a clear statement in FISA that it sought to restrict presidential authority to conduct warrantless searches in the national security area.” The IGs’ report will state that Yoo’s successors considered this problematic because Yoo has omitted discussion of the fact that FISA explicitly authorizes the president to conduct warrantless surveillance during the first 15 days following a declaration of war by Congress, which they considered an expression of Congress’s intent to restrict warrantless surveillance to a limited period of time and specific circumstances. The IGs’ report will also state that Yoo’s memo discusses “the legal rationale for Other Intelligence Activities authorized as part of the PSP,” and that Yoo concludes, “[W]e do not believe that Congress may restrict the president’s inherent constitutional powers, which allow him to gather intelligence necessary to defend the nation from direct attack.” The IGs’ report will say that “Yoo’s discussion of some of the Other Intelligence Activities did not accurately describe the scope of these activities,” and that Yoo’s successors considered his discussion of these other activities to be “insufficient and presenting a serious impediment to recertification of the program as to form and legality.” [Inspectors General, 7/10/2009, pp. pp. 11-13]
Memo's Existence Revealed by ACLU Lawsuit - On December 15, 2005, the New York Times will report that Bush authorized an NSA warrantless domestic surveillance program after the 9/11 attacks (see December 15, 2005). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will request records pertaining to the program under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and then sue the Justice Department for the release of records. The existence of Yoo’s November 2 memo will first be revealed in an October 19, 2007 deposition filed by then head of the OLC Steven Bradbury in response to the ACLU lawsuit, which says that it “[concerns] the legality of certain communications intelligence activities.” After the 2009 release of the IGs’ report the ACLU will notify the court and the government will agree to reprocess four OLC memos, including Yoo’s November 2 memo. This memo and a May 6, 2004 memo by Yoo’s OLC successor Jack Goldsmith that disputes many of Yoo’s conclusions will be released in heavily redacted form on March 18, 2011. [ACLU.org, 2/7/2006; United States District Court of DC, 10/19/2007; American Civil Liberties Union, 3/19/2011]
Constitutional Experts Dispute Yoo's Legal Rationale - Numerous authorities on the law will question or reject the legal bases for warrantless domestic surveillance. In 2003, Yoo will leave the OLC. Goldsmith will begin a review of the PSP, after which he will conclude it is probably illegal in some respects and protest, within the executive branch, its continuation (see Late 2003-Early 2004 and December 2003-June 2004). Following the public disclosure of its existence, a January 5, 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service will find it to be of dubious legality (see January 5, 2006). On January 19, 2006, the DOJ will issue a 42-page white paper laying out the legal bases for the program (see January 19, 2006). These bases will be reviewed and rejected by 14 constitutional scholars and former government officials in a joint letter to Congress on February 2, 2006. [al [PDF], 2/2/2006 pdf file] The American Bar Association will adopt a resolution on February 13, 2006 that rejects DOJ’s arguments and calls on Congress to investigate the program. [Delegates, 2/13/2006 pdf file] On August 17, 2006, in the case ACLU v. NSA, US district judge Anna Diggs Taylor will reject the government’s invocation of the “state secrets privilege” and its argument that plaintiffs’ lack standing due to their being unable to prove they were surveilled, and will rule that warrantless surveillance is in violation of “the separation of powers doctrine, the Administrative Procedures Act, the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the FISA, and Title III” (see August 17, 2006). Taylor’s ruling will be overturned on appeal, on the grounds that the plaintiffs lack standing as they cannot prove that surveillance has occurred. In another case, Al Haramain v. Barack Obama, the government will make the same arguments, but US district judge Vaughn Walker will reject these and conclude in 2010 that illegal surveillance occurred (see March 31, 2010). [Al-Haramain v. Obama, 3/31/2010]

Entity Tags: Steven Bradbury, Vaughn Walker, Ronald Dworkin, George W. Bush, John C. Yoo, American Bar Association, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), American Civil Liberties Union, John Ashcroft, Anna Diggs Taylor, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Fourteen law professors and former federal officials send a letter criticizing the Justice Department’s recent legal arguments supporting the legality of the secret NSA surveillance program (see December 19, 2005 and December 21-22, 2005). The letter is signed by law professors Curtis A. Bradley, a former State Department legal advisor; David Cole; Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general and assistant attorney general; Ronald Dworkin; Richard Epstein; Harold Koh, a former assistant secretary of state and a former Justice Department official; Philip B. Heymann, a former deputy attorney general; Martin Lederman, a former Justice Department official; Beth Nolan, a former presidential counsel and a former Justice Department official; William S. Sessions, the former director of the FBI; Geoffrey R. Stone; Kathleen M. Sullivan; Laurence H. Tribe; and William Van Alstyne, a former Justice Department attorney. The letter is couched in legal language, but clearly states that the signees consider the NSA surveillance program entirely illegal: “[T]he program appears on its face to violate existing law.” The signees consider and reject the Justice Department’s argument that Congress “implicitly authorized the NSA program when it enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda” in 2001 (see September 14-18, 2001), writing: “[T]he AUMF cannot reasonably be construed to implicitly authorize warrantless electronic surveillance in the United States during wartime, where Congress has expressly and specifically addressed that precise question in FISA and limited any such warrantless surveillance to the first 15 days of war.” The signees also reject the Justice Department’s argument that the president’s “inherent constitutional authority as commander in chief to collect ‘signals intelligence’” is not prohibited by FISA. The signees conclude that the Justice Department has failed “to offer a plausible legal defense of the NSA domestic spying program. If the administration felt that FISA was insufficient, the proper course was to seek legislative amendment, as it did with other aspects of FISA in the Patriot Act, and as Congress expressly contemplated when it enacted the wartime wiretap provision in FISA. One of the crucial features of a constitutional democracy is that it is always open to the president—or anyone else—to seek to change the law. But it is also beyond dispute that, in such a democracy, the president cannot simply violate criminal laws behind closed doors because he deems them obsolete or impracticable.” [Marty Lederman, 1/9/2006; Center for Democracy and Technology, 1/9/2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Harold Koh, William S. Sessions, William Van Alstyne, Curtis Bradley, Beth Nolan, Geoffrey Stone, US Department of Justice, Walter Dellinger, Richard Epstein, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman, Laurence Tribe, Kathleen M. Sullivan, Ronald Dworkin, National Security Agency, Philip Heymann, David D. Cole

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department (DOJ) issues a 42-page “white paper” detailing its arguments that the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program (see February 2001, Spring 2001, After September 11, 2001, After September 11, 2001, October 2001, Early 2002, September 2002, Late 2003-Early 2004, April 19-20, 2004, June 9, 2005, June 9, 2005, December 15, 2005, December 17, 2005, December 19, 2005, December 24, 2005, January 5, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 23, 2006, and January 30, 2006) is legal. The DOJ reiterates two previous arguments (see December 19, 2005 and December 21-22, 2005)—that Congress implicitly authorized the program in 2001 when it authorized the Bush administration to begin military actions against al-Qaeda (see September 14-18, 2001), and that the president has the authority as commander in chief to conduct such a program—even though these arguments have been thoroughly refuted (see January 9, 2006) and overridden by the Supreme Court’s recent Hamdan v. Rumsfeld ruling (see December 15, 2005 and July 8, 2006). In its paper, the DOJ declares that if necessary, it will attack the legality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in order to stop that law from “imped[ing]” the president’s power to order domestic surveillance. In essence, according to columnist and civil liberties lawyer Glenn Greenwald, the DOJ is asserting that the president’s powers are limitless as long as he or she declares a given action necessary to battle terrorism. “Because the president has determined that the NSA activities are necessary to the defense of the United States from a subsequent terrorist attack in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, FISA would impermissibly interfere with the president’s most solemn constitutional obligation—to defend the United States against foreign attack,” the DOJ claims. Neither Congress nor the court system has the right to limit or even review the president’s powers, according to the DOJ. Greenwald calls the DOJ’s argument “a naked theory of limitless presidential power.” In fact, Greenwald argues, the DOJ is asserting that FISA itself is unconstitutional, because no law can in any way limit the president’s power to conduct foreign policy or protect the nation’s security. The document is part of a larger Bush administration defense of the USA Patriot Act, and part of the administration’s push to convince Congress to reauthorize that legislation. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sends the document to Congress. Justice Department official Steven Bradbury says, “When it comes to responding to external threats to the country… the government would like to have a single executive who could act nimbly and agilely.” [US Department of Justice, 1/19/2006 pdf file; Glenn Greenwald, 1/20/2006; Washington Post, 1/20/2006]
Dubious Legality - The program has already been found to be of questionable legality by two reports recently released by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (see January 5, 2006 and January 18, 2006). And author James Bamford, a US intelligence expert who has written extensively about the NSA, says that the Justice Department’s arguments are specious in light of Congress’s clear intent in its 1978 passage of FISA to block warrantless wiretapping, and its demonstrated lack of intent to allow any such operations within US borders in the October 2001 legislation. “You could review the entire legislative history in the authorization to use military force and I guarantee you won’t find one word about electronic surveillance,” he says. “If you review the legislative history of FISA, you will find Attorney General Griffin Bell testifying before the intelligence committee saying this was specifically passed to prevent a president from claiming inherent presidential powers to do this again.” [Washington Post, 1/20/2006]
Self-Contradictory Justifications - In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write of the “shaky foundation” supporting the administration’s “two-pronged attacks on critics of the wiretapping program and the Patriot Act,” which some officials have claimed authorizes the program. “Beneath the simplistic rhetoric, the administration’s position was self-contradicting,” Savage will write. If Bush has the inherent presidential authority to order warrantless wiretapping, then he needs no authorization from the Patriot Act or any other legislation. But if Congress is endangering the nation by delaying in reauthorizing the Patriot Act and thusly not rendering the program legal, then the wiretapping program is illegal after all. The memo attempts to “paper… over” this problem by claiming that, while Bush has the inherent authority to do whatever he feels is necessary to protect the country, the Patriot Act’s extra police powers are still necessary in “contexts unrelated to terrorism.” Savage will write, “In other words, the administration’s own position, hidden in the fine print, was that the Patriot Act was superfluous and irrelevant to the war on terrorism—a somewhat absurd stance made necessary by their desire to say the wiretapping program was legal.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 315]
Failure to Address Probable Beginning of Program Before Attacks - The Justice Department says nothing about the program apparently beginning well before 9/11 (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, July 2001, and Early 2002).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, James Bamford, Steven Bradbury, US Department of Justice, Griffin Bell, Senate Judiciary Committee, Glenn Greenwald, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Alberto R. Gonzales, Arlen Specter, George W. Bush, Congressional Research Service, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Civil libertarians, both conservative and liberal, join in filing a legal brief on behalf of suspected al-Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (see December 12, 2001), whose lawyers are preparing to file a suit challenging his detention as an “enemy combatant” (see February 1, 2007). Liberal and progressive law school deans Harold Koh of Yale and Laurence Tribe of Harvard are joined by conservatives such as Steven Calabresi, a former Reagan White House lawyer and co-founder of the staunchly conservative Federalist Society, in a brief that argues an immigrant or a legal resident of the US has the right to seek his freedom in the US court system. Al-Marri is a Qatari citizen who attended Bradley University in Illinois. The brief argues that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) is unconstitutional. The brief “shows the phrases ‘conservative’ and ‘libertarian’ have less overlap than ever before,” says law professor Richard Epstein, a Federalist Society member who signed it, adding, “This administration has lost all libertarians on all counts.” Koh says: “This involves the executive branch changing the rules to avoid challenges to its own authority. Serious legal scholars, regardless of political bent, find what the government did inconsistent with any reasonable visions of the rule of law.” Epstein, who says Koh is “mad on many issues,” agrees, calling the al-Marri case “beyond the pale.” He says, “They figured out every constitutional protection you’d want and they removed them.” Lawyer Jonathan Hafetz, representing al-Marri, says the case brings up issues about what the framers of the Constitution intended—something libertarians and judicial conservatives often look to. [Associated Press, 12/13/2006]

Entity Tags: Richard Epstein, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Federalist Society, Harold Koh, Steven Calabresi, Jonathan Hafetz, Laurence Tribe

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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