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Context of 'May 26, 2009: Torture Memo Author Says Obama Chose ‘Empathy over Excellence’ in Nominating Supreme Court Nominee'

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In a memo, responding to a request from Deputy White House Counsel Timothy E. Flanigan, Justice Department lawyer John C. Yoo provides legal advice on “the legality of the use of military force to prevent or deter terrorist activity inside the United States.” He addresses the question of how the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution applies to the use of “deadly force” by the military “in a manner that endangered the lives of United States citizens.” The Fourth Amendment requires the government to have some objective suspicion of criminal activity before it can infringe on an individual’s liberties, such as the right to privacy or the freedom of movement. Yoo writes that in light of highly destructive terrorist attacks, “the government may be justified in taking measures which in less troubled conditions could be seen as infringements of individual liberties.” If the president determines the threat of terrorism high enough to deploy the military inside US territory, then, Yoo writes, “we think that the Fourth Amendment should be no more relevant than it would be in cases of invasion or insurrection.” [New York Times, 10/24/2004] A month later, the Justice Department will issue a similar memo (see October 23, 2001).

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Timothy E. Flanigan, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

John Yoo.John Yoo. [Source: University of California, Berkeley]In a secret 15-page memo to Deputy White House Counsel Timothy Flanigan, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, a deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel, reasons that it is “beyond question that the president has the plenary constitutional power to take such military actions as he deems necessary and appropriate to respond to the terrorist attacks” of 9/11. Those actions can be extensive. “The president may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the states that harbor or support them,” Yoo writes, “whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of Sept. 11.… Force can be used both to retaliate for those attacks, and to prevent and deter future assaults on the nation. Military actions need not be limited to those individuals, groups, or states that participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” The memo is solicited and overseen by White House lawyers.
Power Derives from Constitution, Congressional Authorization for War - This power of the president, Yoo states, rests both on the US Congress’ Joint Resolution of September 14 (see September 14-18, 2001) and on the War Powers Resolution of 1973. “Neither statute, however, can place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the president alone to make.” (Most experts believe that the Constitution strictly limits the president’s power to declare and conduct war—see 1787).
Power More Extensive than Congress Authorized - Yoo argues further that the September 14 resolution does not represent the limits to the president’s authority. “We think it beyond question” that Congress cannot “place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the president alone to make.” Congress’s “Joint Resolution is somewhat narrower than the president’s constitutional authority,” Yoo writes, as it “does not reach other terrorist individuals, groups, or states which cannot be determined to have links to the September 11 attacks.” The president’s broad power can be used against selected individuals suspected of posing a danger to the US, even though it may be “difficult to establish, by the standards of criminal law or even lower legal standards, that particular individuals or groups have been or may be implicated in attacks on the United States.” Yoo concludes: “[W]e do not think that the difficulty or impossibility of establishing proof to a criminal law standard (or of making evidence public) bars the president from taking such military measures as, in his best judgment, he thinks necessary or appropriate to defend the United States from terrorist attacks. In the exercise of his plenary power to use military force, the president’s decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable.”
'Unenumerated' Presidential Powers - Yoo even asserts that the president has more power than his memo claims: “[T]he president’s powers include inherent executive powers that are unenumerated in the Constitution,” including but not limited to the power to take the country to war without Congressional input. [US Department of Justice, 9/25/2001; Savage, 2007, pp. 121-122]
Memo Remains Secret for Three Years - The contents of this memo are not disclosed until mid-December 2004. [Newsweek, 12/18/2004; Newsweek, 12/27/2004]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Bush administration (43), US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Timothy E. Flanigan

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and OLC special counsel Robert Delahunty issue a joint memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The memo claims that President Bush has sweeping extraconstitutional powers to order military strikes inside the US if he says the strikes are against suspected terrorist targets. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Gonzales asked if Bush could legally order the military to combat potential terrorist activity within the US. The memo is first revealed to exist seven years later (see April 2, 2008) after future OLC head Steven Bradbury acknowledges its existence to the American Civil Liberties Union; it will be released two months after the Bush administration leaves the White House (see March 2, 2009). [US Department of Justice, 10/23/2001 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009]
Granting Extraordinary, Extraconstitutional Authority to Order Military Actions inside US - Yoo and Delahunty’s memo goes far past the stationing of troops to keep watch at airports and around sensitive locations. Instead, the memo says that Bush can order the military to conduct “raids on terrorist cells” inside the US, and even to seize property. “The law has recognized that force (including deadly force) may be legitimately used in self-defense,” they write. In 2009, Reuters will write, “The US military could have kicked in doors to raid a suspected terrorist cell in the United States without a warrant” under the findings of the OLC memo. “We do not think that a military commander carrying out a raid on a terrorist cell would be required to demonstrate probable cause or to obtain a warrant,” Yoo and Delahunty write. [US Department of Justice, 10/23/2001 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009; Reuters, 3/2/2009] The memo reasons that since 9/11, US soil can be legally construed as being a battlefield, and Congress has no power to restrict the president’s authority to confront enemy tactics on a battlefield. [Savage, 2007, pp. 131]
No Constitutional or Other Legal Protections - “[H]owever well suited the warrant and probable cause requirements may be as applied to criminal investigations or to other law enforcement activities, they are unsuited to the demands of wartime and the military necessity to successfully prosecute a war against an enemy. [Rather,] the Fourth Amendment does not apply to domestic military operations designed to deter and prevent foreign terrorist attacks.” Any objections based on the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable search and seizures would be invalid since whatever possible infringement on privacy would be trumped by the need to protect the nation from injury by deadly force. The president is “free from the constraints of the Fourth Amendment.” The Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the military from operating inside the US for law enforcement purposes, is also moot, the memo says, because the troops would be acting in a national security function, not as law enforcement. [US Department of Justice, 10/23/2001 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009; Reuters, 3/2/2009; Ars Technica, 3/2/2009] There are virtually no restrictions on the president’s ability to use the military because, Yoo and Delahunty write, the nation is in a “state of armed conflict.” The scale of violence, they argue, is unprecedented and “legal and constitutional rules” governing law enforcement, even Constitutional restrictions, no longer apply. The US military can be used for “targeting and destroying” hijacked airplanes, they write, or “attacking civilian targets, such as apartment buildings, offices, or ships where suspected terrorists were thought to be.” The memo says, “Military action might encompass making arrests, seizing documents or other property, searching persons or places or keeping them under surveillance, intercepting electronic or wireless communications, setting up roadblocks, interviewing witnesses, or searching for suspects.” [Newsweek, 3/2/2009] Yoo writes that the Justice Department’s criminal division “concurs in our conclusion” that federal criminal laws do not apply to the military during wartime. The criminal division is headed by Michael Chertoff, who will become head of the Department of Homeland Security. [Washington Post, 4/4/2008]
Sweeping Away Constitutional Rights - Civil litigator Glenn Greenwald will later note that the memo gives legal authorization for President Bush to deploy the US military within US borders, to turn it against foreign nationals and US citizens alike, and to render the Constitution’s limits on power irrelevant and non-functional. Greenwald will write, “It was nothing less than an explicit decree that, when it comes to presidential power, the Bill of Rights was suspended, even on US soil and as applied to US citizens.”
Justifying Military Surveillance - Greenwald will note that the memo also justifies the administration’s program of military surveillance against US citizens: “[I]t wasn’t only a decree that existed in theory; this secret proclamation that the Fourth Amendment was inapplicable to what the document calls ‘domestic military operations’ was, among other things, the basis on which Bush ordered the NSA, an arm of the US military, to turn inwards and begin spying—in secret and with no oversight—on the electronic communications (telephone calls and emails) of US citizens on US soil” (see December 15, 2005 and Spring 2004). “If this isn’t the unadorned face of warped authoritarian extremism,” Greenwald will ask, “what is?” [Salon, 3/3/2009] If the president decides to use the military’s spy agency to collect “battlefield intelligence” on US soil, no law enacted by Congress can regulate how he goes about collecting that information, including requiring him to get judicial warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In 2007, Yoo will say in an interview: “I think there’s a law greater than FISA, which is the Constitution, and part of the Constitution is the president’s commander in chief power. Congress can’t take away the president’s powers in running war.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 131; PBS Frontline, 5/15/2007] Cheney and Addington will push the NSA to monitor all calls and e-mails, including those beginning and ending on US soil, but the NSA will balk. Domestic eavesdropping without warrants “could be done and should be done,” Cheney and Addington argue, but the NSA’s lawyers are fearful of the legal repercussions that might follow once their illegal eavesdropping is exposed, with or without the Justice Department’s authorization. The NSA and the White House eventually reach a compromise where the agency will monitor communications going in and out of the US, but will continue to seek warrants for purely domestic communications (see Spring 2001, After September 11, 2001, and October 2001). [Savage, 2007, pp. 131]
Military Use Considered - In 2009, a former Bush administration lawyer will tell a reporter that the memo “gave rise to the Justice Department discussing with the Defense Department whether the military could be used to arrest people and detain people inside the United States. That was considered but rejected on at least one occasion.” The lawyer will not give any indication of when this will happen, or to whom. Under the proposal, the suspects would be held by the military as “enemy combatants.” The proposal will be opposed by the Justice Department’s criminal division and other government lawyers and will ultimately be rejected; instead, the suspects will be arrested under criminal statutes. [Los Angeles Times, 3/3/2009]

Entity Tags: Steven Bradbury, US Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Defense, Robert J. Delahunty, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Bush administration (43), Michael Chertoff, Alberto R. Gonzales, National Security Agency, American Civil Liberties Union, Glenn Greenwald, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a lawyer for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and a member of Vice President Cheney’s ad hoc legal team tasked to radically expand the power of the presidency, writes a legal brief declaring that President Bush does not need approval from Congress or the federal courts for denying suspected terrorists access to US courts, and instead can be tried in military commissions (see (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Two other team members, Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington and White House deputy counsel Timothy Flanigan, have decided that the government bureaucrats need to see that Bush can and will act, in the words of author Craig Unger, “without their blessing—and without the interminable process that goes along with getting that blessing.” Yoo’s opinion is a powerful object lesson. Yoo later says that he saw no need to seek the opinion of the State Department’s lawyers; that department hosts the archives of the Geneva Conventions and its lawyers are among the government’s top experts on the laws of war. “The issue we dealt with was: Can the president do it constitutionally?” Yoo will say. “State—they wouldn’t have views on that.” Neither does Yoo see a need to consult with his own superiors at the Justice Department. Attorney General John Ashcroft is livid upon learning that the draft gives the Justice Department no say in which alleged terrorists will be tried in military commissions. According to witnesses, Ashcroft confronts Cheney and David Addington over the brief, reminding Cheney that he is the president’s senior law enforcement officer; he supervises the FBI and oversees terrorism prosecutions throughout the nation. The Justice Department must have a voice in the tribunal process. He is enraged, participants in the meeting recall, that Yoo had recommended otherwise as part of the White House’s strategy to deny jurisdiction to the courts. Ashcroft talks over Addington and brushes aside interjections from Cheney: “The thing I remember about it is how rude, there’s no other word for it, the attorney general was to the vice president,” one participant recalls. But Cheney refuses to acquiesce to Ashcroft’s objections. Worse for Ashcroft, Bush refuses to discuss the matter with him, leaving Cheney as the final arbiter of the matter. In the following days, Cheney, a master of bureaucratic manipulation, will steer the new policy towards Bush’s desk for approval while avoiding the usual, and legal, oversight from the State Department, the Justice Department, Congress, and potentially troublesome White House lawyers and presidential advisers. Cheney will bring the order to Bush for his signature, brushing aside any involvement by Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (see November 11-13, 2001). [Unger, 2007, pp. 222-223; Washington Post, 6/24/2007]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Craig Unger, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, David S. Addington, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, US Department of State, Timothy E. Flanigan, US Department of Justice, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

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

Former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, who authored numerous legally untenable memos authorizing torture and the preeminence of the executive branch (see September 21, 2001, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 23, 2001, November 6-10, 2001, and January 9, 2002), writes that in the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court (see May 26, 2009), “empathy has won out over excellence in the White House.” Yoo, who calls the Justice she is replacing, David Souter, an equally “weak force on the high court,” writes that President Obama “chose a judge distinguished from the other members of [his list of potential nominees] only by her race. Obama may say he wants to put someone on the Court with a rags-to-riches background, but locking in the political support of Hispanics must sit higher in his priorities.” Sotomayor’s record is “undistinguished,” Yoo writes, and “will not bring to the table the firepower that many liberal academics are asking for.” She will not be the intellectual and legal equal of conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, he says. “Liberals have missed their chance to put on the Court an intellectual leader who will bring about a progressive revolution in the law.” Conservatives should challenge her nomination, Yoo writes, because the Court is “a place where cases are decided by a faithful application of the Constitution, not personal politics, backgrounds, and feelings. Republican senators will have to conduct thorough questioning in the confirmation hearings to make sure that she will not be a results-oriented voter, voting her emotions and politics rather than the law.” [American Enterprise Institute, 5/26/2009]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Barack Obama, David Souter, Sonia Sotomayor, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Former White House political director Karl Rove continues his attacks on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (see May 26, 2009). In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Rove echoes former Justice Department official John Yoo in claiming that the Obama administration chose “empathy” over capability in Sotomayor’s selection (see May 26, 2009). Rove goes one step further than Yoo in equating Sotomayor’s “empathy” with “liberal judicial activism.” “‘Empathy’ is the latest code word for liberal activism,” Rove writes, “for treating the Constitution as malleable clay to be kneaded and molded in whatever form justices want. It represents an expansive view of the judiciary in which courts create policy that couldn’t pass the legislative branch or, if it did, would generate voter backlash.” He accuses Sotomayor, and indirectly President Obama, of a “readiness to discard the rule of law whenever emotion moves them.” He also accuses Obama of attempting to “placate Hispanic groups who’d complained of his failure to appoint more high profile Latinos to his administration.… Mr. Obama also hopes to score political points as GOP senators oppose a Latina. Being able to jam opponents is a favorite Chicago political pastime.” Rove advises Republicans to use Sotomayor’s nomination as an opportunity to “stress their support for judges who strictly interpret the Constitution and apply the law as written.” He notes: “A majority of the public is with the GOP on opposing liberal activist judges. There is something in our political DNA that wants impartial umpires who apply the rules, regardless of who thereby wins or loses.” [Wall Street Journal, 5/28/2009] Hours after his attack column is printed, Rove tells a Fox News audience that Republicans need to treat Sotomayor with “respect” and criticize her over her “philosophy,” not her background. [Think Progress, 5/29/2009]

Entity Tags: Obama administration, Barack Obama, Karl C. Rove, US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

President Barack Obama lambasts critics of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (see May 26, 2009) for their attacks on her (see May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 27-29, 2009, May 27, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 28, 2009, and May 29, 2009). Obama says that Sotomayor regrets her choice of words in a 2001 speech in which she said a “wise Latina” judge would often make better decisions than a white male (see October 26, 2001), but goes on to condemn “all this nonsense that is being spewed out” by critics who have accused her of racism and belonging to racist groups. Of her speech, Obama says: “I’m sure she would have restated it. But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what’s clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through. That will make her a good judge.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says of the racial accusations: “It’s sort of hard to completely quantify the outrage I think almost anybody would feel at the notion that you’re being compared to somebody who used to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s amazing.” Republican strategist John Ullyot, who worked on judicial nominations as a Congressional staffer, says that “any comments politically on race or gender are fraught with peril for Republicans.” He continues: “A few conservatives from outside of the Senate, in their zeal to pick a fight over Obama’s nominee, decided to get very ugly very quickly. No one in the Senate has followed along, and that’s the loudest condemnation you can have.” Ullyot fails to mention attacks from Republican Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL—see May 26, 2009). [Washington Post, 5/29/2009]

Entity Tags: John Ullyot, Barack Obama, US Supreme Court, Robert Gibbs, Sonia Sotomayor

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Former President George H. W. Bush condemns the right-wing attacks against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (see May 26, 2009), speaking out specifically against the charges that she has racist tendencies (see May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 27-29, 2009, May 27, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 29, 2009, May 29, 2009, June 2, 2009, June 5, 2009, and June 7, 2009). “I don’t know her that well but I think she’s had a distinguished record on the bench and she should be entitled to fair hearings,” he says. “Not—[it’s] like the senator John Cornyn said it (see May 28-31, 2009). He may vote for it, he may not. But he’s been backing away from these… backing off from those radical statements to describe her, to attribute things to her that may or may not be true.… And she was called by somebody a racist once. That’s not right. I mean that’s not fair. It doesn’t help the process. You’re out there name-calling. So let them decide who they want to vote for and get on with it.” [Think Progress, 6/12/2009]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, John Cornyn, Sonia Sotomayor, George Herbert Walker Bush

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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