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Context of 'January 15, 2009: OLC Repudiates Earlier Memos Claiming Unprecedented Presidential Powers'

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Jay Bybee, the chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a classified memo to William Howard Taft IV, the chief counsel of the State Department, titled “The President’s Power as Commander in Chief to Transfer Captive Terrorists to the Control and Custody of Foreign Nations.” The memo, actually written by Bybee’s deputy John Yoo, says Congress has no authority to block the president’s power to unilaterally transfer detainees in US custody to other countries. In essence, the memo grants President Bush the power to “rendition” terror suspects to countries without regard to the law or to Congressional legislation, as long as there is no explicit agreement between the US and the other nations to torture the detainees. [US Department of Justice, 3/12/2002 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 148; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009] The memo directly contradicts the 1988 Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994), which specifically forbids the transfer of prisoners in the custody of a signatory country to a nation which practices torture. Once the treaty was ratified by Congress in 1994, it became binding law. But Yoo and Bybee argue that the president has the authority as commander in chief to ignore treaties and laws that supposedly interfere with his power to conduct wartime activities. [Savage, 2007, pp. 148-149] In 2009, when the memos are made public (see March 2, 2009), Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch says she is shocked at the memo: “That is [the Office of Legal Counsel] telling people how to get away with sending someone to a nation to be tortured. The idea that the legal counsel’s office would be essentially telling the president how to violate the law is completely contrary to the purpose and the role of what a legal adviser is supposed to do.” [Washington Post, 3/3/2009]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jay Bybee.Jay Bybee. [Source: Public domain]The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) sends a non-classified memo to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, offering the opinion that a policy allowing suspected al-Qaeda members to be tortured abroad “may be justified.” [US Department of Justice, 8/1/2002 pdf file] This memo will later be nicknamed the “Golden Shield” by insiders in the hopes that it will protect government officials from later being charged with war crimes (see April 2002 and After). [ABC News, 4/9/2008]
Multiple Authors - The 50-page “torture memo” is signed and authored by Jay S. Bybee, head of OLC, and co-authored by John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general. It is later revealed that Yoo authored the memo himself, in close consultation with Vice President Cheney’s chief adviser David Addington, and Bybee just signed off on it (see December 2003-June 2004). [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] Deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan also contributed to the memo. Addington contributed the claim that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it is plainly torture. Addington’s reasoning: US and treaty law “do not apply” to the commander in chief, because Congress “may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]
Statute Only Prohibits 'Extreme Acts' - Gonzales had formally asked for the OLC’s legal opinion in response to a request by the CIA for legal guidance. A former administration official, quoted by the Washington Post, says the CIA “was prepared to get more aggressive and re-learn old skills, but only with explicit assurances from the top that they were doing so with the full legal authority the president could confer on them.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] “We conclude that the statute, taken as a whole,” Bybee and Yoo write, “makes plain that it prohibits only extreme acts.” Addressing the question of what exactly constitute such acts of an extreme nature, the authors proceed to define torture as the infliction of “physical pain” that is “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Purely mental pain or suffering can also amount to “torture under Section 2340,” but only if it results “in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g. lasting for months or even years.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004]
Torture Legal and Defensible - Bybee and Yoo appear to conclude that any act short of torture, even though it may be cruel, inhuman or degrading, would be permissible. They examine, for example, “international decisions regarding the use of sensory deprivation techniques.” These cases, they notice, “make clear that while many of these techniques may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, they do not produce pain or suffering of the necessary intensity to meet the definition of torture. From these decisions, we conclude that there is a wide range of such techniques that will not rise to the level of torture.” More astounding is Bybee and Yoo’s view that even torture can be defensible. “We conclude,” they write, “that, under the current circumstances, necessity or self-defense may justify interrogation methods that might violate Section 2340A.” Inflicting physical or mental pain might be justified, Bybee and Yoo argue, “in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network.” In other words, necessity or self-defense may justify torture. Moreover, “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability.” [Washington Post, 6/8/2004] International anti-torture rules, furthermore, “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations” of suspected terrorists. [US News and World Report, 6/21/2004] Laws prohibiting torture would “not apply to the president’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants” in the “war on terror,” because the president has constitutional authority to conduct a military campaign. [Washington Post, 6/27/2004]
Protecting US Officials from Prosecution - In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “In case an interrogator was ever prosecuted for violating the antitorture law (see October 21, 1994 and January 26, 1998, Yoo laid out page after page of legal defenses he could mount to get the charges dismissed. And should someone balk at this strained interpretation of the law, Yoo offered his usual trump card: Applying the antitorture law to interrogations authorized by the president would be unconstitutional, since only the commander in chief could set standards for questioning prisoners.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 155-156]
Virtually Unrestricted Authority of President - “As commander in chief,” the memo argues, “the president has the constitutional authority to order interrogations of enemy combatants to gain intelligence information concerning the military plans of the enemy.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] According to some critics, this judgment—which will be echoed in a March 2003 draft Pentagon report (see March 6, 2003)—ignores important past rulings such as the 1952 Supreme Court decision in Youngstown Steel and Tube Co v. Sawyer, which determined that the president, even in wartime, is subject to US laws. [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] The memo also says that US Congress “may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” [Washington Post, 6/27/2004]
Ashcroft Refuses to Release Memo - After the memo’s existence is revealed, Attorney General John Ashcroft denies senators’ requests to release it, and refuses to say if or how the president was involved in the discussion. “The president has a right to hear advice from his attorney general, in confidence,” he says. [New York Times, 6/8/2004; Bloomberg, 6/8/2004; Washington Post, 6/9/2004] Privately, Ashcroft is so irritated by Yoo’s hand-in-glove work with the White House that he begins disparagingly referring to him as “Dr. Yes.” [New York Times, 10/4/2007]
Only 'Analytical' - Responding to questions about the memo, White House press secretary Scott McClellan will claim that the memo “was not prepared to provide advice on specific methods or techniques,” but was “analytical.” But the 50-page memo seems to have been considered immensely important, given its length and the fact that it was signed by Bybee. “Given the topic and length of opinion, it had to get pretty high-level attention,” Beth Nolan, a former White House counsel from 1999-2001, will tell reporters. This view is confirmed by another former Office of Legal Counsel lawyer who says that unlike documents signed by deputies in the Office of Legal Counsel, memorandums signed by the Office’s head are considered legally binding. [Washington Post, 6/9/2004]
Memo Will be Withdrawn - Almost two years later, the OLC’s new head, Jack Goldsmith, will withdraw the torture memos, fearing that they go far beyond anything countenanced by US law (see December 2003-June 2004).
Memo Addresses CIA Concerns - The administration, particularly the axis of neoconservatives centered around Cheney’s office, has enthusiastically advocated the use of violent, abusive, and sometimes tortuous interrogation techniques, though the US has never endorsed such tactics before, and many experts say such techniques are counterproductive. The CIA, responding to the desires from the White House, hastily put together a rough program after consulting with intelligence officials from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where detainees are routinely tortured and killed in captivity, and after studying methods used by former Soviet Union interrogators. The legal questions were continuous. The former deputy legal counsel for the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, Paul Kelbaugh, recalls in 2007: “We were getting asked about combinations—‘Can we do this and this at the same time?… These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature—can they be combined?’ Or ‘Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?’” The “torture memo” is designed to address these concerns. [New York Times, 10/4/2007]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Paul Kelbaugh, Timothy E. Flanigan, Scott McClellan, John Ashcroft, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), David S. Addington, Alberto R. Gonzales, Beth Nolan, Al-Qaeda, Charlie Savage, Central Intelligence Agency, Jack Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Steven Bradbury, the outgoing head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a legal opinion finding certain earlier opinions from the OLC invalid. Bradbury is referring to several memos issued by former OLC lawyers John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and others after the 9/11 attacks (see March 2, 2009).
'Doubtful Nature' - Bradbury writes that these opinions had not been relied upon since 2003, and notes that it is important to acknowledge in writing “the doubtful nature of these propositions.” The opinions “do not currently reflect, and have not for some years reflected, the views of the” OLC, Bradbury writes, “and on several occasions we have already acknowledged the doubtful nature of these propositions.”
President's Position - One portion of Bradbury’s memo says it is “not sustainable” to argue that the president’s power as commander in chief “precludes Congress from enacting any legislation concerning the detention, interrogation, prosecution, and transfer of enemy combatants.” Bradbury is referring to a 2002 memo that claimed President Bush could order the “rendition” of detainees to other countries without regard to Congressional legislation (see March 13, 2002).
'Novel and Complex Questions' - In repudiating the memos, Bradbury writes that they were the product of Yoo and others confronting what he calls “novel and complex questions in a time of great danger and under extraordinary time pressure.” [US Department of Justice, 1/15/2009 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009; Reuters, 3/2/2009]
Response - Yale law professor Jack Balkin later notes that the memo does not repudiate “any of the Bush administration’s specific policies regarding surveillance, detention, and interrogation.” [Jack Balkin, 3/3/2009] In 2004, the Justice Department repudiated the so-called “golden shield” memo, written by Yoo and the then-chief counsel for Vice President Cheney, David Addington, which gave US personnel almost unlimited authority to torture prisoners (see August 1, 2002). The New York Times writes that Bradbury’s last-minute memo “appears to have been the Bush lawyers’ last effort to reconcile their views with the wide rejection by legal scholars and some Supreme Court opinions of the sweeping assertions of presidential authority made earlier by the Justice Department.” Walter Dellinger, who headed the OLC during the Clinton administration, says that Bradbury’s memo “disclaiming the opinions of earlier Bush lawyers sets out in blunt detail how irresponsible those earlier opinions were.” Dellinger says it is important to note that the Bush administration’s assertions “that Congress had absolutely no role in these national security issues was contrary to constitutional text, historical practice, and judicial precedent.” [New York Times, 3/2/2009] Bradbury, who like Yoo and Bybee may face disbarment, is careful to note that while the legal opinions are invalid, he is not suggesting that the authors did not “satisfy” professional standards. [Washington Post, 3/3/2009]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Steven Bradbury, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), New York Times, Walter Dellinger, Jay S. Bybee, Jack Balkin, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Some of the Justice Department memos released today.Some of the Justice Department memos released today. [Source: Los Angeles Times]The Department of Justice releases nine memos written after the 9/11 attacks that claimed sweeping, extraconstitutional powers for then-President Bush. The memos, written primarily by John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), claim that Bush could, if he desired, order military raids against targets within the US, and order police or military raids without court warrants (see October 23, 2001). The only justification required would be that Bush had declared the targets of such raids to be suspected terrorists. Other powers the president had, according to the memos, were to unilaterally abrogate or abandon treaties with foreign countries, ignore Congressional legislation regarding suspected terrorists in US detention (see March 13, 2002), suspend First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and information dissemination (see October 23, 2001), and conduct a program of warrantless domestic surveillance (see September 25, 2001). In January, an opinion issued by the OLC claimed that the opinions of the earlier memos had not been acted upon since 2003, and were generally considered unreliable (see January 15, 2009). Attorney General Eric Holder, who signed off on the release of the memos, says: “Too often over the past decade, the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our civil liberties. Not only is that thought misguided, I fear that in actuality it does more harm than good.” [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/2/2009; US Department of Justice, 3/2/2009; New York Times, 3/2/2009]
Memos Laid Groundwork for Warrantless Wiretapping - Though many of the powers said to belong to the president in the memos were never exercised, the assertions led to the warrantless wiretapping of US citizens (see December 15, 2005 and Spring 2004) and the torture of detained terror suspects. [Newsweek, 3/2/2009]
'How To ... Evade Rule of Law' - Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says the memos begin “to provide details of some of the Bush administration’s misguided national security policies” that have long been withheld from public scrutiny. Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch says the memos collectively “read like a how-to document on how to evade the rule of law.” [Washington Post, 3/3/2009] Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies says that the memos were part of a larger effort “that would basically have allowed for the imposition of martial law.” [Newsweek, 3/2/2009]
'Tip of Iceberg' - The memos are, according to a former Bush administration lawyer, “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of what the Bush administration authorized. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the Bush administration memos “essentially argue that the president has a blank check to disregard the Constitution during wartime, not only on foreign battlefields, but also inside the United States.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/3/2009] The ACLU, which has sued to obtain these and other memos, applauds the release of the documents, and says it hopes this is the first step in a broader release. [Reuters, 3/2/2009]

Entity Tags: Eric Holder, Jennifer Daskal, Patrick J. Leahy, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Jameel Jaffer, Kate Martin, John C. Yoo, Bush administration (43), American Civil Liberties Union, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Columnist and international law expert Scott Horton writes of his horror and shock at the nine just-released Bush administration memos from the Justice Department designed to grant President Bush extraordinary executive authority (see March 2, 2009).
'Disappearing Ink' - Horton writes: “Perhaps the most astonishing of these memos was one crafted by University of California at Berkeley law professor John Yoo. He concluded that in wartime, the president was freed from the constraints of the Bill of Rights with respect to anything he chose to label as […] counterterrorism operations inside the United States” (see October 23, 2001, and October 23, 2001). Horton continues: “John Yoo’s Constitution is unlike any other I have ever seen. It seems to consist of one clause: appointing the president as commander in chief. The rest of the Constitution was apparently printed in disappearing ink.”
Timing of Repudiation Proves Bush Officials Found Claims Useful - Horton has no patience with the claims of former Office of Legal Counsel chief Steven Bradbury that the extraordinary powers Yoo attempted to grant Bush were not used very often (see January 15, 2009). “I don’t believe that for a second,” Horton notes, and notes Bradbury’s timing in repudiating the Yoo memos: five days before Bush left office. “Bradbury’s decision to wait to the very end before repealing it suggests that someone in the Bush hierarchy was keen on having it,” Horton asserts.
Serving Multiple Purposes - The memos “clear[ly]” served numerous different purposes, Horton notes. They authorized, or provided legal justification for, the massive domestic surveillance programs launched by military agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency (see September 25, 2001). But the memos went much farther, Horton says: “[T]he language of the memos suggest that much more was afoot, including the deployment of military units and military police powers on American soil. These memos suggest that John Yoo found a way to treat the Posse Comitatus Act as suspended.” They also gave Bush the apparent legal grounds to order the torture of people held at secret overseas sites (see March 13, 2002), and to hold accused terrorist Jose Padilla without charge or due process, even though the administration had no evidence whatsoever of the crimes he had been alleged to commit (see June 8, 2002).
American Dictatorship - Horton’s conclusion is stark. “We may not have realized it at the time, but in the period from late 2001-January 19, 2009, this country was a dictatorship,” he writes. “The constitutional rights we learned about in high school civics were suspended. That was thanks to secret memos crafted deep inside the Justice Department that effectively trashed the Constitution. What we know now is likely the least of it.” [Harper's, 3/3/2009]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Scott Horton, Steven Bradbury, George W. Bush, Jose Padilla, Bush administration (43), Defense Intelligence Agency, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Legal experts and civil libertarians are “stunned” by the recently released memos from the Bush-era Justice Department which assert sweeping powers for the president not granted by the Constitution (see March 2, 2009 and March 3, 2009). Yale law professor Jack Balkin calls the memos a demonstration of the Bush “theory of presidential dictatorship.” Balkin continues: “They say the battlefield is everywhere. And the president can do anything he wants, so long as it involves the military and the enemy.… These views are outrageous and inconsistent with basic principles of the Constitution as well as with two centuries of legal precedents. Yet they were the basic assumptions of key players in the Bush administration in the days following 9/11.” George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr agrees. “I agree with the left on this one,” he says. The approach in the memos “was simply not a plausible reading of the case law. The Bush [Office of Legal Counsel, or OLC] eventually rejected [the] memos because they were wrong on the law—and they were right to do so” (see January 15, 2009). Balkin says the time period of most of the memos—the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks—merely provided a convenient excuse for the administration’s subversion of the Constitution. “This was a period of panic, and panic creates an opportunity for patriotic politicians to abuse their power,” he says. [Jack Balkin, 3/3/2009; Los Angeles Times, 3/4/2009] Civil litigator and columnist Glenn Greenwald writes that the memos helped provide the foundation for what he calls “the regime of secret laws under which we were ruled for the last eight years… the grotesque blueprint for what the US government became.” [Salon, 3/3/2009] Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger says that, contrary to the memos’ assertion of blanket presidential powers in wartime, Congress has considerable powers during such a time. Congress has, according to the Constitution, “all legislative powers,” including the power “to declare war… and make rules concerning captures on land and water” as well as “regulation of the land and naval forces.” Dellinger, who headed the OLC during the Clinton administration, continues: “You can never get over how bad these opinions were. The assertion that Congress has no role to play with respect to the detention of prisoners was contrary to the Constitution’s text, to judicial precedent, and to historical practice. For people who supposedly follow the text [of the Constitution], what don’t they understand about the phrase ‘make rules concerning captures on land and water’?” [Los Angeles Times, 3/4/2009]

Entity Tags: Orin S. Kerr, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Jack Balkin, Walter Dellinger, Glenn Greenwald, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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