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Context of 'January 26, 2009: Gonzales Says He Did Nothing Wrong as Attorney General, Blames Subordinates for ‘Lapses’'

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Bradford Berenson.Bradford Berenson. [Source: PBS]In the weeks following 9/11, government lawyers begin to formulate a legal response to the newly perceived threat of terrorism. Four related issues are at hand: forceful prevention, detention, prosecution, and interrogation. What degree of force can the government employ to prevent acts of terrorism or apprehend suspected terrorists? How and where can it best detain terrorists if captured? How can it best bring them to trial? And how can it best obtain information from them on terrorist organizations and plots? These questions are handled in a new atmosphere that is more tolerant towards flexible interpretations of the law. Bradford Berenson, an associate White House counsel at this time, later recalls: “Legally, the watchword became ‘forward-leaning’ by which everybody meant: ‘We want to be aggressive. We want to take risks.’” [New York Times, 10/24/2004] This attitude is seemingly in line with the president’s thinking. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later recall President Bush saying, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We are going to kick some ass” (see (9:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Clarke, 2004, pp. 23-24] At the center of legal reconstruction work are Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, his deputy Timothy E. Flanigan, and David S. Addington, legal counsel to Vice President Cheney. [New York Times, 12/19/2004] They will find a helpful hand in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), most notably its head, Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee [Los Angeles Times, 6/10/2004] and his deputies John C. Yoo [New York Times, 8/15/2004] and Patrick F. Philbin. Most of the top government lawyers dwell in fairly conservative circles, with many being a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal fraternity. Some have clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whose ruling effectively lead to the presidency being awarded to George W. Bush after the 2000 presidential election. [New York Times, 10/24/2004] Others worked for Judge Lawrence H. Silberman, who set up secret contacts with the Iranian government under President Reagan leading to the Iran-Contra scandal, and who advised on pursuing allegations of sexual misconduct by President Clinton. [Inter Press Service, 2/6/2004]

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Richard A. Clarke, John C. Yoo, Joan Claybrook, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bradford Berenson, Jay S. Bybee, Alan M. Dershowitz, Rena Steinzor

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a neoconservative lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel serving as deputy assistant attorney general, writes a classified memo to senior Pentagon counsel William J. Haynes, titled “Application of Treaties and Law to al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” [New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Yoo: Geneva Conventions Do Not Apply in War on Terror - Yoo’s memo, written in conjunction with fellow Justice Department lawyer Robert Delahunty, echoes arguments by another Justice Department lawyer, Patrick Philbin, two months earlier (see November 6, 2001). Yoo states that, in his view, the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, do not apply to captured Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners, nor do they apply to the military commissions set up to try such prisoners.
Geneva Superseded by Presidential Authority - Yoo’s memo goes even farther, arguing that no international laws apply to the US whatsoever, because they do not have any status under US federal law. “As a result,” Yoo and Delahunty write, “any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter, the president or the US armed forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” In essence, Yoo and Delahunty argue that President Bush and the US military have carte blanche to conduct the global war on terrorism in any manner they see fit, without the restrictions of law or treaty. However, the memo says that while the US need not follow the rules of war, it can and should prosecute al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees for violating those same laws—a legal double standard that provokes sharp criticism when the memo comes to light in May 2004 (see May 21, 2004). Yoo and Delahunty write that while this double standard may seem “at first glance, counter-intuitive,” such expansive legal powers are a product of the president’s constitutional authority “to prosecute the war effectively.” The memo continues, “Restricting the president’s plenary power over military operations (including the treatment of prisoners)” would be “constitutionally dubious.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002; US Department of Justice, 6/9/2002 pdf file; Newsweek, 5/21/2004; New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Overriding International Legal Concerns - Yoo warns in the memo that international law experts may not accept his reasoning, as there is no legal precedent giving any country the right to unilaterally ignore its commitment to Geneva or any other such treaty, but Yoo writes that Bush, by invoking “the president’s commander in chief and chief executive powers to prosecute the war effectively,” can simply override any objections. “Importing customary international law notions concerning armed conflict would represent a direct infringement on the president’s discretion as commander in chief and chief executive to determine how best to conduct the nation’s military affairs.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 146] The essence of Yoo’s argument, a Bush official later says, is that the law “applies to them, but it doesn’t apply to us.” [Newsweek, 5/21/2004] Navy general counsel Alberto Mora later says of the memo that it “espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the president’s commander-in-chief authority.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 181]
White House Approval - White House counsel and future Attorney General Alberto Gonzales agrees (see January 25, 2002), saying, “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002]
Spark for Prisoner Abuses - Many observers believe that Yoo’s memo is the spark for the torture and prisoner abuses later reported from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (see Evening November 7, 2003), Guantanamo Bay (see December 28, 2001), and other clandestine prisoner detention centers (see March 2, 2007). The rationale is that since Afghanistan is what Yoo considers a “failed state,” with no recognizable sovereignity, its militias do not have any status under any international treaties. [Newsweek, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]
Resistance from Inside, Outside Government - Within days, the State Department will vehemently protest the memo, but to no practical effect (see January 25, 2002).

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Robert J. Delahunty, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Taliban, John C. Yoo, Colin Powell, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush, Alberto Mora, US Department of State, Alberto R. Gonzales, William J. Haynes

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

Siding with the Pentagon and Justice Department against the State Department, President Bush declares the Geneva Conventions invalid with regard to conflicts with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Secretary of State Colin Powell urges Bush to reconsider, saying that while Geneva does not apply to al-Qaeda terrorists, making such a decision for the Taliban—the putative government of Afghanistan—is a different matter. Such a decision could put US troops at risk. Both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs chairman General Richard B. Myers support Powell’s position. Yet another voice carries more weight with Bush: John Yoo, a deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC—see October 23, 2001). Yoo says that Afghanistan is a “failed state” without a functional government, and Taliban fighters are not members of an army as such, but members of a “militant, terrorist-like group” (see January 9, 2002). White House counsel Alberto Gonzales agrees with Yoo in a January 25 memo, calling Yoo’s opinion “definitive.” The Gonzales memo concludes that the “new kind of war” Bush wants to fight should not be equated with Geneva’s “quaint” privileges granted to prisoners of war, or the “strict limitations” they impose on interrogations (see January 25, 2002). Military lawyers dispute the idea that Geneva limits interrogations to recitals of name, rank, and serial number, but their objections are ignored. For an OLC lawyer to override the judgment of senior Cabinet officials is unprecedented. OLC lawyers usually render opinions on questions that have already been deliberated by the legal staffs of the agencies involved. But, perhaps because OLC lawyers like Yoo give Bush the legal opinions he wants, Bush grants that agency the first and last say in matters such as these. “OLC was definitely running the show legally, and John Yoo in particular,” a former Pentagon lawyer will recall. “Even though he was quite young, he exercised disproportionate authority because of his personality and his strong opinions.” Yoo is also very close to senior officials in the office of the vice president and in the Pentagon’s legal office. [Ledger (Lakeland FL), 10/24/2004]
Undermining, Cutting out Top Advisers - Cheney deliberately cuts out the president’s national security counsel, John Bellinger, because, as the Washington Post will later report, Cheney’s top adviser, David Addington, holds Bellinger in “open contempt” and does not trust him to adequately push for expanded presidential authority (see January 18-25, 2002). Cheney and his office will also move to exclude Secretary of State Colin Powell from the decision-making process, and, when the media learns of the decision, will manage to shift some of the blame onto Powell (see January 25, 2002). [Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Final Decision - Bush will make his formal final declaration three weeks later (see February 7, 2002).

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, US Department of Justice, Richard B. Myers, US Department of State, Taliban, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo, Alberto R. Gonzales, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Colin Powell, Al-Qaeda, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bellinger, George W. Bush, Geneva Conventions, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

White House lawyer Alberto Gonzales completes a draft memorandum to the president advising him not to reconsider his decision (see January 18-25, 2002) declaring Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters ineligible for prisoner of war status as Colin Powell has apparently recommended. [US Department of Justice, 1/25/2004 pdf file; Newsweek, 5/24/2004] The memo recommends that President Bush accept a recent Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo saying that the president has the authority to set aside the Geneva Conventions as the basis of his policy (see January 9, 2002). [Savage, 2007, pp. 146]
Geneva No Longer Applies, Says Gonzales - Gonzales writes to Bush that Powell “has asked that you conclude that GPW [Third Geneva Convention] does apply to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I understand, however, that he would agree that al-Qaeda and the Taliban fighters could be determined not to be prisoners of war (POWs) but only on a case-by-case basis following individual hearings before a military board.” Powell believes that US troops will be put at risk if the US renounces the Geneva Conventions in relation to the Taliban. Rumsfeld and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, allegedly agree with Powell’s argument. [New York Times, 10/24/2004] But Gonzales says that he agrees with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which has determined that the president had the authority to make this declaration on the premise that “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war” and “not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for GPW [Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war].” Gonzales thus states, “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Newsweek, 5/24/2004] Gonzales also says that by declaring the war in Afghanistan exempt from the Geneva Conventions, the president would “[s]ubstantially [reduce] the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act [of 1996]” (see August 21, 1996). The president and other officials in the administration would then be protected from any future “prosecutors and independent counsels who may in the future decide to pursue unwarranted charges.” [New York Times, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]
Memo Actually Written by Cheney's Lawyer - Though the memo is released under Gonzales’s signature, many inside the White House do not believe the memo was written by him; it has an unorthodox format and a subtly mocking tone that does not go with Gonzales’s usual style. A White House lawyer with direct knowledge of the memo later says it was written by Cheney’s chief lawyer, David Addington. Deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan passed it to Gonzales, who signed it as “my judgment” and sent it to Bush. Addington’s memo quotes Bush’s own words: “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war.” [Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Powell 'Hits the Roof' over Memo - When Powell reads the memo (see January 26, 2002), he reportedly “hit[s] the roof” and immediately arranges for a meeting with the president (see January 25, 2002). [Newsweek, 5/24/2004]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Geneva Conventions, Alberto R. Gonzales, Colin Powell, David S. Addington, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Richard B. Myers

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, 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

The White House and the Justice Department are at odds over the legality of the National Security Agency’s “data mining” program, which involves the NSA combing through enormous electronic databases containing personal information about millions of US citizens, ostensibly for anti-terrorism purposes and often without court warrants (see February 2001, Spring 2001, After September 11, 2001, After September 11, 2001, October 2001, and Early 2002). Such data mining by the NSA potentially threatens citizens’ constitutional right to privacy. This clash between the White House and the Justice Department is one of the reasons that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card will try to pressure Attorney General John Ashcroft, while Ashcroft is recuperating from surgery, to reauthorize the NSA program over the objections of Deputy Attorney General James Comey. That attempt to force reauthorization over Justice Department complaints will result in the protest resignations of Ashcroft, Comey, and other Justice officials (see March 10-12, 2004). In 2007, Gonzales will deny that any such attempt to pressure Ashcroft to overrule Comey ever happened (see July 24, 2007), and will deny that there was any such dispute between the White House and Justice Department over the NSA program. Those denials will lead to calls to investigate Gonzales for perjury (see May 16, 2007). In late 2005, President Bush will admit, after the New York Times reveals the existence of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program (see Early 2002), that the program indeed exists, but will not acknowledge the data mining. Several current and former administration officials, interviewed by reporters in 2007, refuse to go into detail about the dispute between the White House and Justice Department, but say that it involves other issues along with the data mining. They will also refuse to explain what modifications to the surveillance program Bush will authorize to mollify Justice Department officials. Bush and his officials, including Gonzales, who will ascend to the position of attorney general in 2005, will repeatedly insist that he has the authority, both under the Constitution and under Congress’s authorization to use military force against terrorists passed after the 9/11 attacks (see September 14-18, 2001), to bypass the requirements for court warrants to monitor US citizens. Critics will say that such surveillance is illegal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. [New York Times, 7/29/2007]
Domestic Surveillance Began Before 9/11? - Though Bush officials eventually admit to beginning surveillance of US citizens only after the 9/11 attacks, that assertion is disputed by evidence suggesting that the domestic surveillance program began 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: US Department of Justice, National Security Agency, New York Times, James B. Comey Jr., Alberto R. Gonzales, Andrew Card, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Chuck Rosenberg.Chuck Rosenberg. [Source: Associated Press / Charles Dharapak]Vice President Dick Cheney challenges objections to the White House’s secret, warrantless surveillance program (see Early 2002) by Justice Department officials. Cheney makes his objections during a meeting attended by high-level White House and Justice Department officials, but this does not come to light until a 2007 testimony by Deputy Attorney General James Comey (see May 15, 2007). [Washington Post, 6/7/2007] (Comey will step down from his post in mid-2005.) [Law.com, 4/21/2005] The White House meetings take place one day before White House officials journey to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room to try to force Ashcroft to give his approval for the NSA-managed surveillance program (see March 10-12, 2004). Ashcroft will refuse to give his approval. Cheney’s key role in leading what the Washington Post calls “a fierce internal battle over the legality of the warrantless surveillance program” is not known until Comey’s 2007 testimony. The White House meeting, held to discuss Justice Department objections to the NSA program, is attended by Cheney, White House counsel and future attorney general Alberto Gonzales, Cheney’s chief counsel David Addington, and others. Comey will testify that at the time, eight Justice Department officials are prepared to resign if the White House doesn’t back down on forcing the department to sign off on the program. Those officials include FBI director Robert Mueller, US attorney Chuck Rosenberg of the northern Virginia district, and Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith. [Washington Post, 6/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Washington Post, US Department of Justice, Robert S. Mueller III, John Ashcroft, Alberto R. Gonzales, Chuck Rosenberg, David S. Addington, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, James B. Comey Jr., Jack Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General John Ashcroft is visited by a squad of top White House and Justice Department officials just hours after Ashcroft underwent emergency surgery for severe, acute pancreatis, and is still recuperating in intensive care. The White House officials attempt to persuade the barely lucid Ashcroft to give his formal approval for the secret National Security Agency warrantless wiretapping surveillance program (see Early 2002), which requires the Justice Department to periodically review and approve it. [National Public Radio, 5/15/2007; Washington Post, 5/16/2007; Washington Post, 6/7/2007; Associated Press, 6/7/2007]
Comey, Goldsmith Rush to Head Off Aides - Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies to the incident before the Senate Judiciary Committee over three years later (see May 15, 2007). Comey will recall that he and Ashcroft had decided not to recertify the surveillance program due to their concerns over its legality and its lack of oversight. On March 9, Ashcroft was rushed to the hospital with severe pancreatis. As per Justice Department procedures, Comey became acting attorney general for the duration of Ashcroft’s incapacity. The next night, just hours after Ashcroft underwent emergency surgery for the removal of his gallbladder, Comey receives an urgent phone call from Ashcroft’s aide, David Ayres, who himself has just spoken with Ashcroft’s wife Janet. Ayres tells Comey that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and White House chief of staff Andrew Card are en route to Ashcroft’s hospital room to pressure Ashcroft to sign off on the program recertification. A furious Comey telephones FBI director Robert Mueller, and the two, accompanied by aides, race separately through the Washington, DC streets with sirens wailing to reach Ashcroft’s hospital room; they beat Gonzales and Card to the room by a matter of minutes. “I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that,” Comey will testify, and will add that to him, Ashcroft appears “pretty bad off.” En route, Mueller instructs the security detail protecting Ashcroft not to allow Card or Gonzales to eject Comey from the hospital room. Card and Gonzales enter just minutes later. [Washington Post, 5/16/2007; PBS, 5/16/2007] “And it was only a matter of minutes that the door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card,” Comey will testify. “They came over and stood by the bed, greeted the attorney general very briefly, and then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there—to seek his approval for a matter.” [National Public Radio, 5/15/2007] Gonzales is holding an envelope containing an executive order from Bush. He tells Ashcroft that he needs to sign off on the order, thereby giving the wiretapping program Justice Department authorization to continue unabated. Comey will testify that Ashcroft “lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me. [Ashcroft then adds] ‘But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general,’” pointing at Comey. Gonzales and Card leave the room without ever acknowledging Comey’s presence. “I was angry,” Comey will recall. “I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me.” [Washington Post, 5/16/2007; Washington Post, 6/7/2007] “That night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life, so it’s not something I forget,” Comey will testify. [PBS, 5/16/2007] Goldsmith is also in the room; like Comey, Goldsmith receives a phone call alerting him to Gonzales’s and Card’s visit, and like Comey, Goldsmith races through the Washington streets to arrive at Ashcroft’s room minutes before Gonzales and Card arrive. He, too, is astonished at the brazen, callous approach taken by the two White House officials against Ashcroft, who he describes as laying in his darkened hospital room, with a bright light shining on him and tubes and wires protruding from his body. “Ashcroft, who looked like he was near death, sort of puffed up his chest,” Goldsmith later recalls. “All of a sudden, energy and color came into his face, and he said that he didn’t appreciate them coming to visit him under those circumstances, that he had concerns about the matter they were asking about and that, in any event, he wasn’t the attorney general at the moment; Jim Comey was. He actually gave a two-minute speech, and I was sure at the end of it he was going to die. It was the most amazing scene I’ve ever witnessed.” As Gonzales and Card leave the room, Goldsmith will recall, “Mrs. Ashcroft, who obviously couldn’t believe what she saw happening to her sick husband, looked at Gonzales and Card as they walked out of the room and stuck her tongue out at them. She had no idea what we were discussing, but this sweet-looking woman sticking out her tongue was the ultimate expression of disapproval. It captured the feeling in the room perfectly.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007] After Gonzales and Card leave the room, Comey asks Mueller to instruct the security detail not to let any more visitors into the room, except for family, without Mueller’s approval, apparently in order to keep Gonzales and Card from attempting to return. [US Department of Justice, 8/14/2007]
Cheney or Bush Behind Visit? - The hospital visit is sparked by at least two events: a meeting of White House officials a day earlier, where Vice President Dick Cheney attempted to push reluctant Justice Department officials to approve the surveillance program (see March 9, 2004), and Comey’s own refusal to certify the legality of the surveillance, as noted above. [Washington Post, 6/7/2007] Some believe that the timing of the incident shows that Cheney is the one who ordered Gonzales and Card to go to Ashcroft’s hospital room; Comey personally informed Cheney of his decision not to give his approval to the program. Speculation about Cheney’s ordering of the visit cannot be confirmed, [National Journal, 7/7/2007; National Journal, 8/16/2007] though the New York Times states flatly in an op-ed that “Vice President Dick Cheney sent Mr. Gonzales and [Card] to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room to get him to approve the wiretapping.” [New York Times, 7/29/2007] Three years later, Goldsmith will tell Congress that he believes Bush himself authorized the visit (see October 2, 2007).
Meeting in the White House - Minutes after the incident in Ashcroft’s hospital room, Card orders Comey to appear at a late-night meeting at the White House; Comey refuses to go alone, and pulls Solicitor General Theodore Olson from a dinner party to act as a witness to the meeting. “Mr. Card was very upset and demanded that I come to the White House immediately. After the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness present,” Comey will testify. “[Card] replied, ‘What conduct? We were just there to wish him well.’ And I said again, ‘After what I just witnessed, I will not meet with you without a witness. And I intend that witness to be the solicitor general of the United States.’” On March 11, after an al-Qaeda bombing in Madrid kills over 200 people (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004, Bush recertifies the program without the approval of the Justice Department. Comey responds by drafting a letter of resignation, effective March 12. “I couldn’t stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis,” he will testify. “I just simply couldn’t stay.” Comey is not the only one threatening to resign; he is joined by Ashcroft, Mueller, Ayres, Goldsmith, Justice Department official Patrick Philbin, and others, who all intend to resign en masse if Bush signs off on the surveillance program without Justice Department support. But Ayres persuades Comey to delay his resignation; in Comey’s words, Ayres “asked me something that meant a great deal to him, and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me.” Instead of resigning on March 12, Bush meets separately with Comey and Mueller, and promises to make changes in the program (see March 12-Mid-2004). Those changes have never been disclosed, though some changes are later found to be the creation of a secret review court to oversee the surveillance court, and the clarification of what exactly constitutes “probable cause” for surveillance. Comey will testify,…“Director Mueller came to me and said that, ‘The president told me that the Department of Justice should get this where it wants to be—to do what the department thinks is right.’ And I took that mandate and set about to do that, and I accomplished that.” [Newsweek, 1/9/2006; National Public Radio, 5/15/2007; New York Times, 5/15/2007; Washington Post, 5/16/2007; PBS, 5/16/2007; Associated Press, 6/7/2007] Goldsmith recalls his surprise when Congress later approves the program and brings it somewhat under the supervision of the FISA court. “I was sure the government was going to melt down,” Goldsmith says in 2007. “No one anticipated they were going to reverse themselves.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
Did Gonzales Break the Law? - It is also possible that Gonzales and Card may have broken the law in discussing classified information in a public venue. “Executive branch rules require sensitive classified information to be discussed in specialized facilities that are designed to guard against the possibility that officials are being targeted for surveillance outside of the workplace,” says law professor Neal Katyal, a national security adviser under Bill Clinton. “The hospital room of a cabinet official is exactly the type of target ripe for surveillance by a foreign power. And the NSA program is particularly sensitive. One government official familiar with the program notes, “Since it’s that program, it may involve cryptographic information,” some of the most highly protected information in the intelligence community. The law governing disclosure of classified information is quite strict, and numerous government and military officials have been investigated for potential violations in the past. “It’s the one you worry about,” says the government official. Katyal says that if Gonzales did indeed break the law, the Justice Department cannot run any investigation into the matter: “The fact that you have a potential case against the Attorney General himself calls for the most scrupulous and independent of investigations.” Many others are dismayed and confused by the contradictions between the absolute secrecy surrounding the program, and Gonzales’s and Card’s willingness to openly discuss it in such an insecure location, and in front of witnesses not cleared to hear details about the program—including Ashcroft’s wife, who is present in the room while the officials seek her husband’s signature. Former NSA general counsel Elizabeth Parker says not enough is known about the meeting to be sure whether or not the law was broken. “Obviously things can be discussed in ways that don’t divulge highly classified information,” she says. “The real issue is what is it about this program that is so classified that can’t allow it to be discussed in a Congressional setting, even a closed Congressional hearing. In order to have confidence in what this program is all about, one needs to understand better what the approach is and how it affects the rights of American citizens.”
'Horrible' Judgment - John Martin, who oversaw Justice’s counterintelligence division for 26 years, calls Gonzales’s and Card’s attempt to override Comey’s authority as acting attorney general as more than just “bad judgment.” Martin calls their judgement “horrible…they both knew or should have known that the Attorney General while he was so incapacitated had delegated his power to his deputy Jim Comey. Comey’s actions were heroic under the circumstances.” [Time, 5/17/2007]
Snow Dismisses Concerns - In May 2007, after Comey’s testimony to the Senate hits the media, White House press secretary Tony Snow dismisses any concerns about the inappropriateness of Gonzales’s and Card’s pressuring of Ashcroft in his hospital room, and skips over the fact that Comey, not Ashcroft, had the final authority of the Attorney General at the time. “Because he had an appendectomy, his brain didn’t work?” Snow will say of Ashcroft. “Jim Comey can talk about whatever reservations he may have had. But the fact is that there were strong protections in there, this program has saved lives and it’s vital for national security and furthermore has been reformed in a bipartisan way.” Judiciary Committee member Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a different take on the incident: “What happened in that hospital room crystallized Mr. Gonzales’ view about the rule of law: that he holds it in minimum low regard.” [Associated Press, 6/7/2007] Senate Democrats are preparing to introduce a resolution of no-confidence against Gonzales. [Time, 5/17/2007]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, James B. Comey Jr., John Ashcroft, Elizabeth Parker, Janet Ashcroft, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Martin, David Ayres, Alberto R. Gonzales, Andrew Card, US Department of Justice, Charles Schumer, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Tony Snow, Robert S. Mueller III, Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick F. Philbin, Neal Katyal

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

After senior Justice Department officials object to the possible illegality of the National Security Agency’s secret domestic surveillance program, and refuse to sign off on its continued use, the program is suspended for several months while Justice Department officials conduct a secret audit of the program. Attorney General John Ashcroft will recertify the program at the end of the month (see Late March, 2004). The suspension is prompted by acting Attorney General James Comey’s refusal to approve the program when it comes up for its regular 45-day review, and a subsequent late-night hospital visit by White House officials Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales to the hospital room of Attorney General John Ashcroft, where they unsuccessfully attempt to pressure Ashcroft, recuperating from surgery, to overrule Comey and approve the program (see March 10-12, 2004). Bush himself has personally reauthorized the program over 30 times since its inception after the 9/11 attacks (see Early 2002), and reauthorizes it himself after Comey and Ashcroft refuse to give it their approval. This reauthorization prompts a threat of mass resignations by Justice Department officials unless the program is brought under increased oversight. Bush will allow the Justice Department to recommend changes to the program, though those changes have never been made public. The Justice Department audits a selection of cases to see how the NSA is running the program, scrutinizing how NSA officials determine that they have probable cause to wiretap US citizens’ phones and e-mail accounts. The results of that audit have not been made public. When the program was first authorized by Bush’s executive order in early 2002, it was so secret that then-Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who was active in most of the government’s most highly classified counterterrorism operations, was not given access to the program. That decision, among other elements of the program, led many Justice Department officials to worry that the program was operating outside of the Constitution and without proper oversight. Comey, Thompson’s successor, was eventually given authorization to take part in the program and to review intelligence data produced by it. Justice Department officials say that Comey takes part in overseeing the reforms that are put into place during the current audit. However, those reforms do not restrict the NSA’s authority to independently choose its eavesdropping targets, and NSA shift supervisors have the authority to decide for themselves whether there is enough evidence against a US citizen to warrant a secret wiretap. No one at the Justice Department or in the White House needs to be consulted before a wiretap is put into place. [New York Times, 12/31/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, National Security Agency, Larry D. Thompson, Associated Press, James B. Comey Jr., John Ashcroft, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, Andrew Card

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General John Ashcroft recertifies the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program as being within the law, three weeks after he and his deputy, James Comey, refused to certify it. The program had come under question in early 2004, when Jack Goldsmith, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, wrote to Ashcroft and Comey expressing his doubts about the program’s legality (see September 9, 2007). For those three weeks, the program operated without Justice Department approval; President Bush personally recertified it himself, though it was suspended and subjected to an internal review (see March 12-Mid-2004). Ashcroft had previously refused to recertify the program while recuperating from surgery, despite pressure from White House officials Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card (see March 10-12, 2004). Ashcroft, Comey, Goldsmith, and other Justice Department officials had even threatened to resign en masse if Bush recertified the program without their department’s support; Bush promised to revamp the program to address Ashcroft and Comey’s objections to the program, though what those changes are remains unclear. [Boston Globe, 5/16/2007; Associated Press, 6/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Andrew Card, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, National Security Agency, James B. Comey Jr., US Department of Justice, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Referring to the recent appointment of former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales as US Attorney General (see November 10, 2004), retired chief judge of the Army Court of Appeals Brigadier General James Cullen says, “When you encounter a person who is willing to twist the law… even though for perhaps good reasons, you have to say you’re really undermining the law itself.” [Village Voice, 11/29/2004]

Entity Tags: James Cullen, Alberto R. Gonzales

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and NSA chief Lieutenant General Michael Hayden conduct their own “briefing” on the recently revealed NSA wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005) with the White House press corps. Gonzales and Hayden make the following points:
bullet Gonzales says that he will not discuss the internal workings of the still-classified program, only what he calls its “legal underpinnings.”
bullet He claims that the program, which he calls “the most classified program that exists in the United States government,” is legal because President Bush authorized it, and says that the idea that “the United States is somehow spying on American citizens” is wrong: it is “[v]ery, very important to understand that one party to the communication has to be outside the United States.”
bullet He says that for the NSA to eavesdrop on a US citizen’s telephone or e-mail communications, “we have to have a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al-Qaeda, affiliated with al-Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, or working in support of al-Qaeda.” The wiretapping program is an essential part of the administration’s war against terror, he says.
bullet He goes on to claim that “the authorization to use force, which was passed by the Congress in the days following September 11th, constitutes” legal grounds for “this kind of signals intelligence.” [White House, 12/19/2005] The White House signed Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) into law on September 18, 2001 (see September 14-18, 2001. [White House, 9/18/2001]
Hayden Claims Supreme Court Backing - While he admits that the Congressional authorization to use force against international terrorism does not specifically mention any kind of electronic surveillance, he refers the listeners to the Supreme Court case concerning alleged US terrorist Yaser Esam Hamdi (see June 28, 2004), in which the Court ruled that Hamdi had the legal right to challenge his detention. “[T]he United States government took the position that Congress had authorized that detention in the authorization to use force, even though the authorization to use force never mentions the word ‘detention.’ And the Supreme Court, a plurality written by Justice O’Connor agreed. She said, it was clear and unmistakable that the Congress had authorized the detention of an American citizen captured on the battlefield as an enemy combatant for the remainder—the duration of the hostilities. So even though the authorization to use force did not mention the word, ‘detention,’ she felt that detention of enemy soldiers captured on the battlefield was a fundamental incident of waging war, and therefore, had been authorized by Congress when they used the words, ‘authorize the President to use all necessary and appropriate force.’ For the same reason, we believe signals intelligence is even more a fundamental incident of war, and we believe has been authorized by the Congress. And even though signals intelligence is not mentioned in the authorization to use force, we believe that the Court would apply the same reasoning to recognize the authorization by Congress to engage in this kind of electronic surveillance.”
Bush 'Very Concerned' With Protecting Civil Liberties - Gonzales insists, Bush “is very concerned about the protection of civil liberties, and that’s why we’ve got strict parameters, strict guidelines in place out at NSA to ensure that the program is operating in a way that is consistent with the President’s directives.” He adds, “[W]e feel comfortable that this surveillance is consistent with requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, and the Supreme Court has long held that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement in—when special needs outside the law enforcement arena. And we think that that standard has been met here.”
Wiretapping Essential in Catching Terrorists - Hayden reiterates how important the wiretapping is to catching terrorists and stopping potential attacks against US targets, though he and Gonzales both refuse to say what, if any, terrorist plots or what terror suspects might have been captured through the NSA wiretapping program. Hayden does say, “This program has been successful in detecting and preventing attacks inside the United States.…I can say unequivocally, all right, that we have got information through this program that would not otherwise have been available,” though he refuses to cite specifics. He admits that there have been some errors in surveilling innocent US citizens, though he refuses to give any details, and says those errors were quickly corrected.
Administration Not Required to Go Through FISA - Gonzales, who is the main speaker in the briefing, reiterates that while the administration continues to seek warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, “we are not legally required to do, in this particular case, because the law requires that we—FISA requires that we get a court order, unless authorized by a statute, and we believe that authorization has occurred.” He justifies the administration’s refusal to use the FISA court for obtaining warrants by insisting that NSA officials “tell me that we don’t have the speed and the agility that we need, in all circumstances, to deal with this new kind of enemy. You have to remember that FISA was passed by the Congress in 1978. There have been tremendous advances in technology… since then.” Hayden adds, “I don’t think anyone could claim that FISA was envisaged as a tool to cover armed enemy combatants in preparation for attacks inside the United States. And that’s what this authorization under the President is designed to help us do.”
'Balancing' of Civil Liberties, National Security - Hayden says the warrantless wiretapping program is part of “a balancing between security and liberty,” a more “aggressive” operation “than would be traditionally available under FISA. It is also less intrusive. It deals only with international calls. It is generally for far shorter periods of time. And it is not designed to collect reams of intelligence, but to detect and warn and prevent about attacks. And, therefore, that’s where we’ve decided to draw that balance between security and liberty.”
Media Leaks Damaging to National Security - Gonzales refuses to talk about when any members of Congress were briefed on the program or what they were told, but he does imply that there will be some sort of leak investigation as to how the New York Times found out about the program: “[T]his is really hurting national security, this has really hurt our country, and we are concerned that a very valuable tool has been compromised. As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
No Evidence of Compromised National Security - When asked whether he can cite any evidence that the revelation of the program’s existence has actually compromised anything—“Don’t you assume that the other side thinks we’re listening to them? I mean, come on,” one reporter says—Gonzales responds, rather confusingly, “I think the existence of this program, the confirmation of the—I mean, the fact that this program exists, in my judgment, has compromised national security, as the President indicated on Saturday.”
Easier to Sidestep FISA Instead of Seek Congressional Approval - He does admit that the administration decided to sidestep the FISA court entirely instead of attempt to work with Congress to rewrite the FISA statutes because “we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible” to amend the law to the White House’s satisfaction. Gonzales says those who are concerned about the program being excessively intrusive or a threat to American civil liberties simply “don’t understand the specifics of the program, they don’t understand the strict safeguards within the program.… Part of the reason for this press brief today is to have you help us educate the American people and the American Congress about what we’re doing and the legal basis for what we’re doing.” He adds that any legal experts who believe the program is illegal are basing their judgments “on very limited information.”
Tough Questioning - One reporter asks an unusually tough series of questions to Gonzales: “Do you think the government has the right to break the law?”, to which Gonzales replies, “Absolutely not. I don’t believe anyone is above the law.” The reporter then says, “You have stretched this resolution for war into giving you carte blanche to do anything you want to do,” to which Gonzales replies cryptically, “Well, one might make that same argument in connection with detention of American citizens, which is far more intrusive than listening into a conversation.” The reporter insists, “You’re never supposed to spy on Americans,” and Gonzales deflects the responsibility for the decision back onto the Supreme Court.
Administration Will Tell Nation What It Needs to Know - Gonzales says the administration has no intention of releasing any of the classified legal opinions underpinning the program, and this press briefing is one of the methods by which the administration will “educat[e] the American people…and the Congress” to give them what they need to know about the program. [White House, 12/19/2005]

Entity Tags: White House press corps, Michael Hayden, Al-Qaeda, National Security Agency, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the new “reasonable belief” standard for wiretaps is just another term for “probable cause.” Gonzales’s claim is legally false. The difference between the two standards is significant: while administration officials must present relatively compelling evidence that a US citizen has ties to US-designated terrorist organizations or is involved in terror plots to meet the “probable cause” standard for authorizing electronic surveillance, the “reasonable belief” standard is far more lenient. Gonzales also repeats for the committee President Bush’s claims that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) isn’t “agile” or “nimble” enough to assist the Justice Department and the US intelligence community in finding and arresting terrorists, a claim that FISC judges find baffling. FISC routinely approves almost all warrant requests, and FISA allows the government to conduct surveillance for 72 hours before even applying for a warrant. Additionally, FISC has consistently worked with the government to expedite requests and streamline the warrant-issuance procedure. For example, in March 2002, when the FBI and Pakistani police arrested al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida, agents found that almost all of Zubaida’s contacts were already being monitored under FISA warrants or through international surveillance efforts (see March 28, 2002). One government official says that the Zubaida discovery gave them “some comfort” that surveillance efforts were working as needed. [Washington Post, 2/9/2006]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Abu Zubaida, Al-Qaeda, Alberto R. Gonzales, US Department of Justice, Senate Judiciary Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says he will sharply limit the testimony of former attorney general John Ashcroft and former deputy attorney general James Comey before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee is preparing for hearings on the warrantless wiretapping program authorized by President Bush several months after the 9/11 attacks (see Early 2002). Gonzales says that “privilege issues” will circumscribe both men’s testimony: “As a general matter, we would not be disclosing internal deliberations, internal recommendations. That’s not something we’d do as a general matter, whether or not you’re a current member of the administration or a former member of the administration.” He adds, “You have to wonder what could Messrs. Comey and Ashcroft add to the discussion.” Comey was an observer to the late-night visit by Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card to Ashcroft’s hospital room, where Gonzales and Card unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the heavily sedated Ashcroft to reauthorize the program after Comey, as acting attorney general, determined the program was likely illegal (see March 10-12, 2004). Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) says he has asked Gonzales for permission to call Comey and Ashcroft to testify, but has not yet received an answer. Specter says, “I’m not asking about internal memoranda or any internal discussions or any of those kind of documents which would have a chilling effect.” Specter will ask Ashcroft and Comey to talk about the legal issues at play in the case, including the events surrounding the hospital visit. In the House Judiciary Committee, Republicans block an attempt by Democrats to ask Gonzales to provide legal opinions and other documents related to the program. [Washington Post, 2/16/2006]

Entity Tags: Andrew Card, Alberto R. Gonzales, Arlen Specter, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, House Judiciary Committee, James B. Comey Jr., Senate Judiciary Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stuns Senate Judiciary Committee questioners when he says that the fundamental right of habeas corpus, the right for an accused person to go to court and challenge his or her imprisonment, is not protected by the Constitution. Gonzales, in response to questions by Arlen Specter (R-PA), says: “The Constitution doesn’t say every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas.… There is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution. There’s a prohibition against taking it away.” Specter is incredulous, asking how the Constitution could bar the suspension of a right that didn’t exist—a right, he notes, that was first recognized in medieval England as protection against the king’s power to send subjects to royal dungeons. Gonzales does say that habeas corpus is “one of our most cherished rights,” and admits that Congress has protected that right. But Gonzales refuses to acknowledge that the Constitution itself protects the right. If the Constitution does not, then Congress would be able to limit or nullify habeas corpus rights if it so chooses. Congress has not passed such an all-encompassing law yet, but it has passed a law, the Military Commissions Act, that strips the courts of any authority to hear habeas corpus suits filed by “enemy combatants.”
Experts Fear Government Encroachment on Civil Liberties - But constitutional experts on both the left and the right say that Gonzales’s position implies a far broader power. Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor who has frequently criticized the Bush administration, says: “This is the key protection that people have if they’re held in violation of the law. If there’s no habeas corpus, and if the government wants to pick you or me off the street and hold us indefinitely, how do we get our release?” Former Reagan Justice Department official Douglas Kmiec agrees. If Gonzales’s view prevails, Kmiec says, “one of the basic protections of human liberty against the powers of the state would be embarrassingly absent from our constitutional system.” A Justice Department spokesman says that Gonzales is only noting the absence of a specific constitutional guarantee for habeas corpus, and acknowledges that the Supreme Court has declared “the Constitution protects [habeas corpus] as it existed at common law” in England. These rights, the spokesman says, do not apply to foreigners held as enemy combatants. [San Francisco Chronicle, 1/24/2007]
Habeas Protected in Constitution - The right of habeas corpus is clear in Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 of the Constitution: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” [Think Progress, 1/19/2007]
Expansion of Presidential Powers - Former Reagan Justice Department attorney Bruce Fein says that Gonzales’s stance on habeas corpus is an underpinning of the Bush administration’s attempt to advocate the “unitary executive” theory of presidential power. Gonzales’s statements contain a message: “Congress doesn’t have to let [judges] decide national security matters. It’s part of an attempt to create the idea that during conflicts, the three branches of government collapse into one, and it is the president.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 1/24/2007]

Entity Tags: Senate Judiciary Committee, Military Commissions Act, George W. Bush, Patrick J. Leahy, Erwin Chemerinsky, Central Intelligence Agency, Alberto R. Gonzales, Arlen Specter, Douglas Kmiec, Bush administration (43), Bruce Fein

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tells an NPR reporter that he never allowed the Justice Department (DOJ) to become politicized, and that he believes the historical judgment of his tenure in the department will be favorable. He acknowledges making some errors, including failing to properly oversee the DOJ’s push to fire nine US attorneys in 2008, a process many believe was orchestrated by the White House with the involvement of Gonzales and then-White House political guru Karl Rove.
Failure to Engage - “No question, I should have been more engaged in that process,” he says, but adds that he is being held accountable for decisions made by his subordinates. “I deeply regret some of the decisions made by my staff,” he says, referring to his former deputy Paul McNulty, who resigned over the controversy after telling a Senate committee that the attorney firings were performance-related and not politically motivated. Gonzales says his then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, was primarily responsible for the US attorney review process and for working with McNulty. “If Paul McNulty makes a recommendation to me—if a recommendation includes his views—I would feel quite comfortable that those would be good recommendations coming to me” about the qualifications of the US attorneys under question, Gonzales says. He adds that he has “seen no evidence” that Rove or anyone at the White House tried to use the US attorneys to politicize the work at the DOJ. A review by the DOJ’s Inspector General found that the firing policy was fundamentally flawed, and that Gonzales was disengaged and had failed to properly supervise the review process.
Claims He Was Unfairly Targeted by 'Mean-Spirited' Washington Insiders - Gonzales says he has been unfairly held responsible for many controversial Bush administration policies, including its refusal to abide by the Geneva Conventions (see Late September 2001, January 9, 2002, January 18-25, 2002, January 25, 2002, August 1, 2002, November 11, 2004, and January 17, 2007) and its illegal eavesdropping on US citizens (see Early 2004, March 9, 2004, December 19, 2005, Early 2006, and February 15, 2006), because of his close personal relationship with former President Bush. Washington, he says, is a “difficult town, a mean-spirited town.” He continues: “Sometimes people identify someone to target. That’s what happened to me. I’m not whining. It comes with the job.”
Visiting Ashcroft at the Hospital - In 2004, Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and White House chief of staff Andrew Card raced to the bedside of hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to persuade, or perhaps coerce, Ashcroft to sign off on a secret government surveillance program (see March 10-12, 2004). The intervention was blocked by Deputy Attorney General James Comey (see March 12-Mid-2004). Gonzales says he has no regrets about the incident: “Neither Andy nor I would have gone there to take advantage of somebody who was sick. We were sent there on behalf of the president of the United States.” As for threats by Justice Department officials to resign en masse over the hospital visit (see Late March, 2004), Gonzales merely says, “Lawyers often disagree about important legal issues.”
Warning about Plain Speaking - Gonzales says Obama’s attorney general nominee, Eric Holder, should refrain from making such statements as Holder made last week when he testified that waterboarding is torture. “One needs to be careful in making a blanket pronouncement like that,” Gonzales says, adding that such a statement might affect the “morale and dedication” of intelligence officials and lawyers who are attempting to make cases against terrorism suspects. [National Public Radio, 1/26/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Eric Holder, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Alberto R. Gonzales, Geneva Conventions, George W. Bush, James B. Comey Jr., Karl C. Rove, Paul J. McNulty, D. Kyle Sampson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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