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March 2, 2009: Justice Department Releases Bush-Era Memos Claiming Extraconstitutional Powers for President

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

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