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Context of 'March 3, 2009: Law Expert: Memos Prove US a ‘Dictatorship’ for Last Seven Years of Bush Presidency'

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

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

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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

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

The US Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility refuses to refer two former Bush administration officials to authorities for criminal or civil charges regarding their authorizations of the torture of suspected terrorists (see Before April 22, 2009). John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, two senior officials in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, provided the legal groundwork that allowed American interrogators to use sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and other torture methods against terror suspects (see Late September 2001, January 9, 2002, and August 1, 2002). The report finds that Yoo and Bybee, along with former OLC head Steven Bradbury, exhibited “poor judgment” in their actions. The OPR refuses to make the report’s conclusions public. It is known that senior Justice Department official David Margolis made the decision not to refer Yoo and Bybee for legal sanctions. [Office of Professional Responsibility, US Department of Justice, 7/29/2009 pdf file; Washington Post, 1/31/2010]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Bush administration (43), David Margolis, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Professional Responsibility, US Department of Justice, Steven Bradbury, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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