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Context of 'November 16-17, 1987: Republicans Issue Minority Iran-Contra Report, Claim Administration Actions Legitimate'

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After the failure of the US federal government under the Articles of Confederation, the men working to shape the new American government—later termed the “Founders”—determine that the new government must have a president with power equal to that of Congress and the Supreme Court. The federal government itself has far more power under the new Constitution than it had under the Articles, but many Founders worry that the government will have, or take upon itself, the power to constrain or even destroy individual rights and freedoms. The government, therefore, will have strict limitations on its functions, and will be divided into three co-equal branches. Debate over whether the new government should have a single president or an executive council rages, but eventually the Founders decide that a single president could best act decisively in times of crisis. However, Congress has the strength to curtail presidential power via legislation and oversight. One of the Founders’ most crucial decisions is to give Congress, not the president, the power to declare war and commit military troops to battle. Congress must also authorize any military actions that fall short of actual war, the creation and maintenance of armies, and exercise control over how the president can call on the armed forces in emergencies. Finally, the Founders, all too aware that until the English Revolution of 1688, the King of England could use his “prerogative powers” to dispense with a law that he felt unnecessary, move to ensure that the US president cannot use a similar usurpation of power to override Congressional legislation, writing in the Constitution that the president must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” In 2007, reporter Charlie Savage, drawing on James Madison’s Federalist Papers, will write: “Knowing that it was inevitable that from time to time foolish, corrupt, or shortsighted individuals would win positions of responsibility in the government, the Founders came up with a system that would limit anyone’s ability to become a tyrant or to otherwise wreck the country. And over the next century and a half, the system worked as the Founders had designed it to work.” (Savage 2007, pp. 14-16)

James Madison, one of the founders of the American system of constitutional government (see 1787), writes of the importance of Congress, not the president, retaining the power to send the nation to war. “Those who are to conduct a war cannot, in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges,” he writes, “whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded. They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government, analagous to that which separates the sword from the purse, or the power from executing from the power of enacting laws.” (Savage 2007, pp. 19)

President Theodore Roosevelt, wielding what will become known as the theory of inherent power, declares that the presidency has a “residuum of powers” to do anything not specifically forbidden by the Constitution. Without asking Congress for its approval, Roosevelt launches the project to build the Panama Canal, sends the US Navy around the world, and sends US troops to the Dominican Republic. In 2009, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write, “Roosevelt’s views… contained the seeds of the imperial presidency that would arise during the first decades of the Cold War.” Roosevelt’s successor, future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, will disagree, and Taft’s presidency will restore some of the limits on presidential power removed by Roosevelt. (Savage 2007, pp. 17-18)

President Roosevelt signs the US declaration of war with Japan.President Roosevelt signs the US declaration of war with Japan. [Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum]President Roosevelt, recognizing that Congress has the Constitutional authority to declare war (see 1787 and 1793), asks the legislature for a declaration of war against Japan in retaliation for the Japanese air attack against US naval forces at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt calls the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941, “a day which will live in infamy.” He says, “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” With a single exception—Representative Jeannette Rankin (R-MT)—every member of the House and Senate votes to authorize war against Japan. The next day, the US will declare war against Germany and Italy as well. (Savage 2007, pp. 18; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum 2/10/2008)

President Harry Truman, without the approval of Congress, sends US troops to fight in the Korean War. Unlike his predecessor (see December 8, 1941), Truman asserts that he has the inherent right to do so as the commander in chief (see 1787 and 1793). Truman bases his decision in part on a UN Security Council resolution passed three days before—at the US’s behest—approving military aid to South Korea, which was invaded by North Korean troops on June 25. In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write: “But the permission of foreign states was irrelevant to the domestic legal issue of who got to decide whether the United States would go to war. No president had ever before launched anything on the scale of the Korean War without prior permission from Congress, as the Constitution requires.” Savage will explain why Congress allows Truman to usurp its prerogatives: “[M]embers of Congress, eager to appear tough against Communism and to support a war effort, did nothing to block Truman.” (Savage 2007, pp. 19; Truman Library 3/2008)

The Justice Department appeals the ruling of the US Appeals Court in the B-29 “Banshee” case (see December 11, 1951). The appellate judges found that the executive branch of government could not unilaterally refuse to hand over classified documents requested during the course of a trial, and justify its decision merely by its own say-so (see October 12, 1950). Solicitor General Philip Perlman argues that the appellate ruling erroneously interprets the law “so as to permit encroachments by the judiciary on an area committed by the Constitution to executive discretion.” The claim of “state secrets,” “executive privilege,” and, ultimately, “national security” must trump judicial concerns, Perlman argues, and he goes on to say that the judiciary should not be allowed to “substitute its judgment for the judgment of the executive.” The case will be labeled United States of America v. Patricia Reynolds, Phyllis Brauner, and Elizabeth Palya, and will usually be shortened to the more colloquial US v. Reynolds.
The Vinson Court - In 2008, author Barry Siegel, in his book Claim of Privilege, will note that the recent ascension of Fred Vinson as the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice does not bode well for the plaintiffs in the case. President Truman placed Vinson, whom Siegel calls Truman’s “poker and drinking buddy,” as Chief Justice to try to achieve consensus between the two contentious blocs of justices on the Court. Siegel notes that Vinson is widely considered an intellectual and legal lightweight, with a tendency to take the side of the government on issues in which he lacks a full understanding. Siegel will write that in many instances, Vinson functions “as part of the executive branch.”
'Dennis' Case Preview of Court's Tendency to Favor Executive Branch - Vinson had written the opinion in a 1951 ruling, Dennis et al v. United States, where the Court had upheld a lower court ruling that twelve acknowledged American Communists were sent to jail under the Smith Act—not for breaking the law, but for “teaching and advocating,” in the words of the original indictment. Siegel will call that ruling “the nadir of the Vinson Court.” According to Siegel, the Dennis ruling showed the Court’s predisposition to give the government, and particularly the executive branch, plenty of leeway in its findings in subsequent cases such as Reynolds. (Siegel 2008, pp. 157-162)

The US Supreme Court rules that the federal government cannot seize the nation’s steel mills. In April, President Truman, fearing a nationwide strike that could impact the US war effort in Korea, ordered the seizure of all US steel mills; the lawsuit that resulted, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, quickly made its way to the Supreme Court.
Rejection of 'Inherent Powers' Claim - During oral arguments, the justices grilled Acting Attorney General Philip Perlman, demanding to know what statutes he had relied on for his arguments and asserting that the president had limitations both on his emergency wartime powers and on his ability to claim that he is the “sole judge” of the existence of, and remedies for, an emergency. The justices are not convinced by the government’s arguments for the president’s “inherent powers.” They are also troubled by repeated refusals of the government to provide facts and documentary backing for its legal arguments, and its reliance instead on claims of “national security.” The attorney for the steel industry, John Davis, quoted Thomas Jefferson in his argument: “In questions of power, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Justice William O. Douglas noted that if the government’s claims were valid, there would be “no more need for Congress.”
Court Rejects Argument - In a 6-3 vote, the Court rules that the president has no inherent power to seize the steel mills. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black states: “In the framework of our Constitution, the president’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker.… The founders of this nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times.… This is a job for the nation’s lawmakers.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Robert Jackson writes, “No penance would ever expiate the sin against free government of holding that a president can escape control of executive powers by law through assuming his military role.” In his dissent, Chief Justice Fred Vinson (see March 1952) argues that “the gravity of the emergency” overrides the Constitutional arguments accepted by the majority of the Court. “Those who suggest that this is a case involving extraordinary powers should be mindful that these are extraordinary times. A world not yet recovered from the devastation of World War II has been forced to face the threat of another and more terrifying global conflict.” (Savage 2007, pp. 123; Siegel 2008, pp. 163-164) In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will observe that the Youngstown decision “turned out to be only a pause in the movement toward an increasingly authoritarian presidency.” (Savage 2007, pp. 19)

The Supreme Court rules in INS v. Chadha that Congress has no right to issue what it calls “legislative vetoes,” essentially provisions passed by Congress giving the executive branch specific powers but with Congress reserving the right to veto specific decisions by the executive branch if it does not approve of the decisions made by the executive. Congress had relied on such “legislative vetoes” for years to curb the expanding power of the president. The Court strikes down hundreds of these “legislative vetoes” throughout federal law. Congress quickly schedules hearings to decide how to respond to the Court’s ruling. White House attorney John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), a young, fast-rising conservative, is one of a team of lawyers assigned to review the administration’s upcoming testimony before Congress. Some of the lawyers want to push Congress to place independent agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under White House control—part of the evolving “unitary executive” theory of presidential power (see April 30, 1986). Roberts writes: “With respect to independent agencies… the time may be ripe to reconsider the existence of such entities, and take action to bring them back within the executive branch.… I agree that the time is ripe to reconsider the Constitutional anomaly of independent agencies… More timid souls may, however, desire to see this deleted as provocative.” (Savage 2007, pp. 256-257)

The Reagan administration takes another step in attempting to “purge” the federal bureaucracy of those who disagree with its policies (see February 1981 and After). President Reagan issues an executive order requiring agencies to annually submit a cost-benefit analysis of their proposed new rules to the White House, giving administration officials the chance to object to, delay, and block regulations it opposes for ideological reasons. Reagan attorney Douglas Kmiec will later write that this scheme is a major part of the Reagan administration’s attempt to implement the “unitary executive” theory of executive power (see April 30, 1986). Kmiec will write that though White House objections have no legal weight because Congress has given the agencies the power to make rules by law, the White House often wins the argument anyway. (Savage 2007, pp. 304-305)

Edwin Meese.Edwin Meese. [Source: GQ (.com)]Attorney General Edwin Meese receives a report, “Separation of Powers: Legislative-Executive Relations.” Meese had commissioned the report from the Justice Department’s Domestic Policy Committee, an internal “think tank” staffed with hardline conservative scholars and policy advisers.
Recommendations for Restoring, Expanding Executive Power - The Meese report approvingly notes that “the strong leadership of President Reagan seems clearly to have ended the congressional resurgence of the 1970s.” It lays out recommendations for restoring the power taken from the executive branch after Watergate and Vietnam, and adding new powers besides. It recommends that the White House refuse to enforce laws and statutes that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch,” and for Reagan to veto more legislation and to use “signing statements” to state the White House’s position on newly passed laws. It also assails the 1972 War Powers Resolution and other laws that limit presidential power.
Reinterpreting the Separation of Powers and the Concept of 'Checks and Balances' - Perhaps most importantly, the Meese report claims that for 200 years, courts and scholars alike have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Founders’ intentions in positing the “separation of powers” system (see 1787 and 1793). The belief that the Constitution mandates three separate, co-equal branches of government—executive, judicial, and legislative—who wield overlapping areas of authority and work to keep each of the other branches from usurping too much power—a concept taught in school as “checks and balances”—is wrong, the report asserts. Instead, each branch has separate and independent sets of powers, and none of the three branches may tread or encroach on the others’ area of responsibility and authority. “The only ‘sharing of power’ is the sharing of the sum of all national government power,” the report claims. “But that is not joint shared, it is explicitly divided among the three branches.” According to the report, the White House should exercise total and unchallenged control of the executive branch, which, as reporter and author Charlie Savage will later explain, “could be conceived of as a unitary being with the president as its brain.” The concept of “checks and balances” is nothing more than an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to encroach on the rightful power of the executive. This theory of presidential function will soon be dubbed the “unitary executive theory,” a title adapted from a passage by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. (Savage 2007, pp. 47-48) Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general during the second term, will later write that though the unitary executive theory displays “perfect logic” and a “beautiful symmetry,” it is difficult to defend, because it “is not literally compelled by the words of the Constitution. Nor did the framers’ intent compel this view.” (Savage 2007, pp. 50)

The Iran-Contra hearings come to an end after over 250 hours of testimony from 28 witnesses. (New York Times 11/19/1987) The hearings have been unsatisfactory at best, with the committee saying in a final statement, “We may never know with precision or truth why [the Iran-Contra affair] ever happened.” (PBS 2000) The biggest wrangle left for the committee is the status of the final report. The committee’s Democratic leaders want a unanimous report. The Republicans demand numerous concessions for such a unanimous report, including the exclusion of critical evidence of an administration cover-up and evidence implicating President Reagan in the Iran-Contra policy decision-making. The committee produces dozens of drafts of the final report, each more watered-down than the previous one, to accommodate Republican demands. The Republicans will get a report almost completely to their liking, but will then pull away and issue their own minority report anyway (see November 16-17, 1987). (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 80-81)

The congressional Iran-Contra committee has finally produced a final report, which committee Democrats thought would be unanimous. But committee Republicans fought successfully to water down the report, including the exclusion of evidence proving President Reagan’s involvement in the policy decisions (see August 3, 1987 and After), and then at the last minute broke away and announced their intention to issue a minority report—which was their intention all along. “From the get-go they wanted a minority report,” Republican staffer Bruce Fein will later recall. The official majority report is due to come out on November 17, but a printing error forces it to be delayed a day (see November 18, 1987). The committee Republicans, headed by Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) and Senator Henry Hyde (R-IL) leak their minority report to the New York Times on November 16, thus stealing a march on the majority. On November 17, all of the committee Republicans save three—Senators Warren Rudman (R-NH), Paul Trible (R-VA), and William Cohen (R-ME)—hold a press conference in which they accuse the majority of staging a “witch hunt” against the president and the administration. The minority report asserts: “There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the ‘rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy, and no administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up.… In our view the administration did proceed legally in pursuing both its Contra policy and the Iran arms initiative.” Rudman calls the minority report “pathetic,” and says his Republican colleagues have “separated the wheat from the chaff and sowed the chaff.” The press focuses on the conflict between the two reports. The Democrats largely ignore the minority report: “This was ‘87,” one Democratic staff member will recall. “We had a substantial majority and the Republicans were trained to be what we thought was a permanent minority party. When they would yap and yell, we would let them yap. It just didn’t matter.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 80-81)

Congress’s joint Iran-Contra investigative committee issues its final majority report. (New York Times 11/19/1987) The Republican minority has largely refused to join the majority report, which was watered down time and again to entice the Republicans to join in the issuance of a unanimous report (see November 16-17, 1987). Still, the watered-down report finds that the “clandestine financing operation undermined the powers of Congress as a coequal branch and subverted the Constitution.” The Reagan administration had violated a key belief of the Constitution’s framers: “the purse and the sword should never be in the same hands.” Regardless of the majority report’s findings, no significant reforms will come from the Iran-Contra investigation. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 81-82)

A federal appeals court rules 2-1 in favor of Theodore Olson, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who has refused to comply with a subpoena issued as part of an independent counsel’s investigation into political interference at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Olson’s position is that the independent counsel is illegal under the Constitution, as interpreted by the so-called “unitary executive theory” (see April 30, 1986). One of the appellate court judges, Carter appointee Ruth Bader Ginsberg, argues that the independent counsel law is perfectly constitutional, and fits with the Founding Fathers’ vision of a system of “checks and balances” among the three governmental branches. But Reagan appointees Laurence Silberman and Stephen Williams outvote Ginsberg. Silberman, who writes the majority opinion, is a longtime advocate of increased executive power, and calls the independent counsel law “inconsistent with the doctrine of a unitary executive.” The Supreme Court will strike down Silberman’s ruling (see June 1988), but the independent counsel will not bring charges against Olson. (Savage 2007, pp. 46-49)

In a 7-1 ruling, the Supreme Court rules that the independent counsel law is Constitutional and valid. The ruling overturns a recent appeals court ruling striking down the law because it conflicts with the “unitary executive” theory of government (see January 1988). The ruling stuns the Reagan administration, who had fiercely argued against the independent counsel law, in part because conservative justice William Rehnquist authors the majority opinion. Only Reagan appointee Antonin Scalia votes in favor of the unitary executive. (Savage 2007, pp. 46-49)

The newly appointed general counsels of each executive branch receive a memo from William Barr, the new head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The memo, entitled “Common Legislative Encroachments on Executive Branch Authority,” details the top 10 ways in which, in Barr’s view, Congress tries to interfere with executive branch powers. The list includes:
bullet “4. Micromanagement of the Executive Branch”;
bullet “5. Attempts to Gain Access to Sensitive Executive Branch Information”;
bullet “9. Attempts to Restrict the President’s Foreign Affairs Powers.”
The memo unequivocally endorses the “unitary executive theory” of the presidency (see April 30, 1986), despite that theory’s complete rejection by the Supreme Court (see June 1988). Barr also reiterates the belief that the Constitution requires the executive branch to “speak with one voice”—the president’s—and tells the general counsels to watch for any legislation that would protect executive branch officials from being fired at will by the president, one of the powers that Barr and other unitary executive proponents believe has been illegally taken by Congress. “Only by consistently and forcefully resisting such congressional incursions can executive branch prerogatives be preserved,” Barr writes. Reflecting on Barr’s arguments, law professor Neil Kinkopf, who will later serve in the OLC under President Clinton, will later write: “Never before had the Office of Legal Counsel… publicly articulated a policy of resisting Congress. The Barr memo did so with belligerence, staking out an expansive view of presidential power while asserting positions that contradicted recent Supreme Court precedent. Rather than fade away as ill-conceived and legally dubious, however, the memo’s ideas persisted and evolved within the Republican Party and conservative legal circles like the Federalist Society.” (Savage 2007, pp. 57-59)

Iraqi tanks poised to roll into Kuwait.Iraqi tanks poised to roll into Kuwait. [Source: Kristina Greve]Iraq invades Kuwait. In response, the US suspends National Security Directive 26 (see October 2-6, 1989), which established closer ties with Baghdad and mandated $1 billion in agricultural loan guarantees to Iraq. (Frantz and Waas 2/23/1992) The secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, begins pressing President Bush to go to war with Iraq without securing Congressional approval. His rationale is two-fold: he doesn’t need Congressional authority, and he might not get it if he asks. Cheney moves the Pentagon onto a full war footing, even going so far as to create what author and former White House counsel John Dean calls “his own concocted high-risk plans of battle, which he tried but failed to sell at the White House.” Bush will juggle Cheney’s view with that of House Speaker Tom Foley, who will give the president a document signed by 81 Democratic members who insist that if Bush wants to go to war, he needs the authorization of Congress. Dean will write that Cheney’s arguments “are based on bogus legal and historical arguments that have been made before, but no one has pushed them longer or harder than he has.” (Dean 2007, pp. 89-91) Bush decides not to follow Cheney’s advice. In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will observe: “By urging Bush to ignore the War Powers Resolution on the eve of the first major overseas ground war since Congress enacted the law, Cheney was attempting to set a powerful precedent. Had Bush taken his advice and survived the political fallout, the Gulf War would have restored [former President] Truman’s claim that as president he had ‘inherent’ powers to send American troops to the Korean War on his own” (see June 30, 1950). (Savage 2007, pp. 62)

In an unusually fiery speech, President George H. W. Bush tells an audience at Princeton University that he does not hold with Congressional attempts to limit presidential power. “The most common challenge to presidential powers comes from a predictable source,” he says, “the United States Congress.” Bush accuses lawmakers of trying to “micromanage” executive branch decisions, particularly in foreign policy (see July 27, 1989). He denounces Congress for attempting to, in his view, accumulate power at the expense of the executive branch by making excessive and unwarranted demands for information, and by “writing too-specific directions for carrying out a particular law.” Six of the 20 vetoes he has cast were to defend the presidency against such meddling, he asserts. And he criticizes Congress for passing bills containing indefensible earmarks and spending provisions; to curb such excesses, he demands a line-item veto. But he tempers his remarks: “The great joy and challenge of the office I occupy,” he concludes, “is that the president serves, not just as the unitary executive (see April 30, 1986), but hopefully as a unifying executive.” (Savage 2007, pp. 59)

Author Terry Eastland, the editor of Forbes Media Critic and a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, publishes Energy in the Executive: The Case for the Strong Presidency. The book makes an impassioned case for the “unitary executive” theory of the presidency (see April 30, 1986). In essence, Eastland’s argument is that a strong presidency, combined with a much diluted Congress and Supreme Court, is the best way for conservatives to achieve their aims. While traditional conservatives tend to reject this theory as unacceptably authoritarian, many others on the right—neoconservatives, social conservatives, the religious right, and other groups—have embraced the concept. Author and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call Eastland’s arguments “weak… deeply flawed as history and constitutional law, and closer to cheerleading for presidential hubris, excessive secrecy, and monarchical-like authority than a solid justification for a strong presidency.” (Dean 2007, pp. 100-106)

Law professor John Yoo writes a lengthy essay for the California Law Review entitled “The Continuation of Politics by Other Means: The Original Understanding of War Powers,” in which he argues that the Founding Fathers intended to empower presidents to launch wars without Congressional permission. Yoo has clerked for conservative judge Laurence Silberman and equally conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and served for a year as counsel to then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT). He has become a regular speaker at Federalist Society events, the informal but influential group of conservative lawyers, judges, and legal scholars who will come to have so much influence in the Bush administration. You argues that for generations, Constitutional scholars have misread the Constitution: the Founders actually supported, not repudiated, the British model of executive power that gave the king the sole power of declaring war and committing forces to battle. The Constitution’s granting of the legislature—Congress—the power to “declare war” is merely, Yoo writes, a reference to the ceremonial role of deciding whether to proclaim the existence of a conflict as a diplomatic detail. The Founders always intended the executive branch to actually declare and commence war, he writes. Most other Constitutional scholars will dismiss Yoo’s arguments, citing notes from the Constitutional Convention that show the Founders clearly intended Congress, not the president, to decide whether to commit the country to war. One of those Founders, James Madison, wrote in 1795 that giving a president the unilateral ability to declare war “would have struck, not only at the fabric of the Constitution, but at the foundation of all well organized and well checked governments. The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it, is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted.” (Savage 2007, pp. 80-81) Yoo will go on to join the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, and write numerous torture memos (see October 4, 2001, November 6-10, 2001, November 20, 2001, December 21, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, January 11, 2002, January 14, 2002, January 22, 2002, January 24-26, 2002, March 13, 2002, July 22, 2002, August 1, 2002, August 1, 2002, and March 14, 2003) and opinions expanding the power of the president (see September 21, 2001, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, and June 27, 2002).

David Addington.David Addington. [Source: David Bohrer / White House]According to an in-depth examination by the Washington Post, within hours of the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney begins working to secure additional powers for the White House. Cheney had plans in place to begin acquiring these powers for the executive branch before the attacks, but had not begun to execute them.
Gathering the Team - David Addington, Cheney’s general counsel and legal adviser, had been walking home after having to leave the now-evacuated Eisenhower Executive Office Building. He receives a message from the White House telling him to turn around, because the vice president needs him. After Addington joins Cheney in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) below the East Wing of the White House, the pair reportedly begin “contemplating the founding question of the legal revolution to come: What extraordinary powers will the president need for his response?” Later in the day, Addington connects by secure video with Timothy Flanigan, the deputy White House counsel, who is in the White House Situation Room. John Yoo, the deputy chief of the Office of Legal Counsel, is also patched in from the Justice Department’s command center. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales joins them later. This forms the core legal team that Cheney will oversee after the terrorist attacks. Associate White House counsel Bradford Berenson will later recall: “Addington, Flanigan and Gonzales were really a triumvirate. [Yoo] was a supporting player.” Addington dominates the group. Gonzales is there primarily because of his relationship with President Bush. He is not, Yoo will later recall, “a law-of-war expert and [doesn’t] have very developed views.” Along with these allies, Cheney will provide what the Washington Post calls “the rationale and political muscle to drive far-reaching legal changes through the White House, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon,” which will free the president to fight the war on terror, “as he saw fit.”
Drafting the AUMF - The team begins drafting the document that will become the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF—see October 10, 2002) passed by Congress for the assault on Afghanistan. In the words of the group, the president is authorized “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.”
Extraordinarily Broad Language - The language is extraordinarily broad; Yoo will later explain that they chose such sweeping language because “this war was so different, you can’t predict what might come up.” The AUMF draft is the first of numerous attempts to secure broad powers for the presidency, most justified by the 9/11 attacks. The Washington Post will later report, “In fact, the triumvirate knew very well what would come next: the interception—without a warrant—of communications to and from the United States” (see September 25, 2001). (CNN 9/11/2001; CNN 9/12/2001; Unger 2007, pp. 220-221; Gellman and Becker 6/24/2007)

The US Congress adopts a joint resolution, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), that determines that “the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” Congress also states that the “grave acts of violence” committed on the US “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to [its] national security and foreign policy.” (US Congress 9/14/2001) President Bush signs the resolution into law on September 18. (White House 9/18/2001) The passage of the AUMF served another purpose: to extend presidential power. While the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff intended the AUMF to define the conflict in narrow terms, and authorize the US to move militarily against al-Qaeda and its confederates, and the Taliban, Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, had a larger goal. Attorney Scott Horton, who has written two major studies on interrogation of terrorism suspects for the New York City Bar Association, says in 2005 that Cheney and Addington “really wanted [the AUMF defined more broadly], because it provided the trigger for this radical redefinition of presidential power.” Addington helped draft a Justice Department opinion in late 2001, written by lawyer John Yoo (see Late September 2001), that asserted 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.” (Ravagan 5/21/2006)

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. (Isikoff 12/18/2004; Isikoff, Klaidman, and Hirsh 12/27/2004)

While the Bush White House publicly denies any desire for war with Iraq, and says it is committed to working with the United Nations to find a diplomatic course of action, behind the scenes the administration’s lawyers are working on a legal justification for war. White House counsel Timothy Flanigan develops a legal position that argues the president needs no Congressional authorization to attack Iraq. Flanigan’s superior, chief White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, presents Flanigan’s legal rationale to President Bush. Flanigan’s chief argument is that the president’s “inherent power as commander in chief” (see 1901-1909 and June 2, 1952) gives him the right to unilaterally take the country to war. Flanigan’s backup position is invoking the 1991 Congressional authorization for the Persian Gulf War (see January 9-13, 1991), and the UN Security Council’s resolutions from that time period (see November 29, 1990). Nevertheless, the White House will demand an authorization for war from Congress (see October 11, 2002)—an authorization White House officials say Bush has no intention of using except as a means of bringing diplomatic pressure against Iraq. (Savage 2007, pp. 156)

After Senator Chuck Hagel learns that the White House counsel has told President Bush that he has the constitutional authority to use preemptive force without congressional approval (see September 25, 2001), he calls White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and asks, “Andy, I don’t think you have a shred of ground to stand on, but more to the point, why would a president seriously consider taking a nation to war without Congress being with him?” Some time later, Hagel, along with senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, are invited to the White House to discuss the matter. (Gentlemen's Quarterly 1/2007)

The Senate Judiciary Committee brings in several experts to expand upon the testimony of attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales (see January 6, 2005 and January 6, 2005). One of the most outspoken critics is Yale Law School dean Harold Koh. Koh had worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) under Ronald Reagan, and later served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Clinton administration. He is a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s detention policies at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Koh had once worked closely with OLC lawyer John Yoo, the author of numerous torture memos (see October 4, 2001, November 6-10, 2001, November 20, 2001, December 21, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, January 11, 2002, January 14, 2002, January 22, 2002, January 24-26, 2002, March 13, 2002, July 22, 2002, August 1, 2002, August 1, 2002, and March 14, 2003) and opinions expanding the power of the president (see September 21, 2001, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, and June 27, 2002), but now, without explicitly mentioning Yoo by name, he repudiates his former student’s legal positions. Gonzales worked closely with Yoo to craft the administration’s positions on wiretapping, torture, the inherent power of the president, and other issues. “Having worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and for more than two years as an attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel, I am familiar with how legal opinions like this are sought and drafted,” Koh states. “I further sympathize with the tremendous pressures of time and crisis that government lawyers face while drafting such opinions. Nevertheless, in my professional opinion, the August 1, 2002 OLC memorandum [drafted by Yoo at Gonzales’s behest—see August 1, 2002] is perhaps the most clearly erroneous legal opinion I have ever read.” The August 1 memo, as well as other opinions by Yoo and Gonzales, “grossly overreads the inherent power of the president” as commander in chief, Koh testifies. The memos raise profound questions about the legal ethics of everyone involved—Gonzales, Yoo, and others in the Justice Department and White House. “If a client asks a lawyer how to break the law and escape liability, the lawyer’s ethical duty is to say no,” Koh testifies. “A lawyer has no obligation to aid, support, or justify the commission of an illegal act.” (Senate Judiciary Committee 1/7/2005 pdf file; Savage 2007, pp. 211-212)

John Yoo, a law professor at UC Berkeley who worked in the Justice Department and provided legal justification for some of Bush’s policies after 9/11 ( see September 25, 2001), suggests some provocative ideas in a Los Angeles Times editorial. He argues the US should go on the offensive against al-Qaeda, having “our intelligence agencies create a false terrorist organization. It could have its own websites, recruitment centers, training camps, and fundraising operations. It could launch fake terrorist operations and claim credit for real terrorist strikes, helping to sow confusion within al-Qaeda’s ranks, causing operatives to doubt others’ identities and to question the validity of communications.” (Yoo 7/13/2005)

President Bush, stung by the opposition from both left and right that derailed his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court (see October 3-27, 2005), nominates appeals court judge Samuel Alito to the Court to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor. (Dean 2007, pp. 155-157)
Staunch Advocate of Expanding Presidential Power - Alito has impeccable credentials, especially in contrast to the widely derided Miers. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, a long-time member of the conservative Federalist Society, and has years of decisions behind him as an appellate court judge. He is a product of the Reagan-era Justice Department. Bush calls him “one of the most accomplished and respected judges in America.” He is a powerful anti-abortion advocate, and a staunch supporter of granting ever more power to the executive branch, especially at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. During his time in the Reagan Justice Department, he worked on a project to “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” In 2000 he called the “unitary executive theory” (see April 30, 1986) the “gospel according to the OLC,” the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where he worked for four years, and said he was firmly committed to advancing that theory. (Savage 2007, pp. 267-271)
Bland Facade at Hearings - Alito receives a unanimous “well qualified” assessment from the American Bar Association, and the Bush administration expects that his nomination will sail through the Senate confirmation hearings as quickly and painlessly as did Bush’s previous choice for the Court, John Roberts (see September 29, 2005). The hearings are more contentious than Bush would like, and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will say in 2007 that Alito’s performance before the Judiciary Committee “only served to confirm that the entire process has become little more than a great charade.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), one of the longest-serving members of the committee, observes that the Bush administration believes—correctly—that it can nominate radical right-wing extremists to the Court virtually at will, “as long as their views were not well known,” and adds, “[T]he current White House [has] turned the effort to hide nominees’ views into an art form.” Like Roberts, Alito presents a bland, non-confrontational facade to the committee (see January 9-13, 2006), refusing to take a personal stance on any issue and giving the impression that, as Kennedy will say after Alito and Roberts begin their service on the Court, he would be “as neutral as a baseball umpire.… The men who promised to be neutral umpires look more and more like loyal members of the president’s team.” (Dean 2007, pp. 155-157)
Party-Line Confirmation - After an attempt by Senators Kennedy and John Kerry (D-MA) to filibuster Alito’s confirmation fails, the Senate confirms Alito’s ascension to the Court by a near-party line 58-42 vote, the closest such vote since Clarence Thomas’s (see October 13, 1991). Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) condemns what he calls the “very bitter partisanship” over Alito’s nomination, and accuses Democrats of playing politics: “When you have a man who has the decency, the legal ability and the capacities that Judge Alito has treated this way, I think it’s despicable.” Alito, whose hardline conservative beliefs are sufficiently masked during the hearings, replaces the far more moderate O’Connor, who before her retirement made up the “moderate center” of the Court with Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter. Now Alito joins Thomas, Roberts, and Antonin Scalia to form a hard-right conservative bloc on the Court which, when joined by center-right conservative Kennedy, forms a nearly unshakable conservative majority. (CNN 2/1/2006)
Overturning Roe? - Many believe that Alito gives the Court the fifth vote it needs to finally overturn the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade (see January 22, 1973), a longtime goal of social conservatives that would go far to make abortions illegal in the US. (Bazelon 10/31/2005)

While on a trip to the Middle East, Vice President Dick Cheney gives a frank outline of his view of the president’s powers, and refers to an Iran-Contra document as support for this view. In response to a question about his perspective as a veteran of the Ford administration, which the reporter says “arguably was the point at which presidential power had reached its absolute nadir,” Cheney replies, “Yes, I do have the view that over the years there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority, that it’s reflected in a number of developments.” Cheney lists several examples, including the War Powers Act, Congressional budget controls, the limitations placed on his own 2001 Energy Task Force, and numerous steps to limit the president’s power taken after Watergate and the Vietnam War. Cheney then advises the reporter: “If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra Committee; the Iran Contra Report in about 1987 (see November 16-17, 1987). Nobody has ever read them, but we—part of the argument in Iran Contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years. And those of us in the minority wrote minority views, but they were actually authored by a guy working for me, for my staff, that I think are very good in laying out a robust view of the president’s prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters. It will give you a much broader perspective.… I believe in a strong, robust executive authority. And I think the world we live in demands it. And to some extent, that we have an obligation as an administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good a shape as we found them.… I do think that to some extent now, we’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency.” (White House 12/20/2005)
Nixon Lawyer: Cheney 'Twisting History' - However, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call the Iran-Contra document to which Cheney refers “replete with factual and other errors,” a wholesale “twist[ing] of history” that nevertheless “sought to establish extreme standards for presidential powers vis-a-vis Congress.” According to Dean, Cheney believes now, as he did then, “that the Congress—other than writing checks to finance the president’s policies—has no real role whatsoever.” (Dean 2007, pp. 86-88)
Former Republican Staffer: 'Chasm of Difference' between Then, Now - Former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein, who helped Cheney write the minority report and has since parted ways with his old boss, will say there is “a chasm of difference” between Iran-Contra and the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration. “Then it was part of the democratic process,” Fein will say in July 2006. “The way you debate the process, it allows for self-correction. This is the essence, the lifeblood of democracy.” Then, the Reagan administration was forced by a Democratic majority in Congress to disclose at least some details of its inner workings. There is no such disclosure today, Fein says. “They think that democracy ends if you win elections.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 81)

After months of opposition and a recent, clandestine rewriting of the bill (see Before December 30, 2005), President Bush signs the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) into law, effectively outlawing torture by government and military officials (see December 15, 2005). However, Bush also inserts a signing statement into the record reserving for himself the right to ignore the law under his powers as commander in chief if he judges that torturing a prisoner is in the interest of national security (see December 30, 2005). Signing statements have no legal status, but serve to inform the nation as to how the president interprets a particular law. In this case, Bush writes that he will waive the restrictions on torture if he feels it is necessary to protect national security. “We consider ourselves bound by the prohibition on cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment,” says a senior administration official, but under unusual circumstances—a “ticking time bomb” scenario, for example, where a detainee is believed to have information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack, Bush’s responsibility to protect the nation will supersede the law. Law professor David Golove is critical of the White House’s position, saying: “The signing statement is saying ‘I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it’s important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me.’ They don’t want to come out and say it directly because it doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s unmistakable to anyone who has been following what’s going on.” Bush has issued numerous signing statements signaling his intent to flaunt the law in the areas of domestic surveillance, detaining terrorist suspects without due legal process, and previous legislation forbidding the torture of prisoners. Many legal and civil rights organizations believe that Bush’s signing statement is part of his push for a “unitary executive,” where the president has virtually unlimited powers in the areas of foreign policy and national security, and neither Congress nor the courts have the right to limit his powers (see April 30, 1986). Former Justice Department official and law professor Marty Lederman says: “The whole point of the McCain Amendment was to close every loophole. The president has re-opened the loophole by asserting the constitutional authority to act in violation of the statute where it would assist in the war on terrorism.” Human Rights Watch director Elisa Massamino calls the signing statement an “in-your-face affront” to both McCain and to Congress. “The basic civics lesson that there are three co-equal branches of government that provide checks and balances on each other is being fundamentally rejected by this executive branch. Congress is trying to flex its muscle to provide those checks [on detainee abuse], and it’s being told through the signing statement that it’s impotent. It’s quite a radical view.” (Savage 1/4/2006; Boston Globe 4/30/2006)

During the Senate hearings to confirm conservative jurist Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the questioning turns to Alito’s views on the “unitary executive” theory (January 1, 1992). The theory seems to have originated in the Reagan administration’s Justice Department (see April 30, 1986), where Alito worked in the Office of Legal Counsel.
Lawyer Testifies to Unitary Executive - Former Clinton White House counsel Beth Nolan testifies about the theory and its potential for dramatically revamping the power of the presidency: “‘Unitary executive’ is a small phrase with almost limitless import. At the very least, it embodies the concept of presidential control over all executive functions, including those that have traditionally been executed by ‘independent’ agencies and other actors not subject to the president’s direct control.… The phrase is also used to embrace expansive interpretations of the president’s substantive powers, and strong limits on the legislative and judicial branches.” Nolan cites a November 2000 speech by Alito to the Federalist Society, where Alito said in part, “the president is largely impervious to statutory law in the areas of foreign affairs, national security, and Congress is effectively powerless to act as a constraint against presidential aggrandizement in these areas.” (Dean 2007, pp. 100-106) During the questioning session, Alito denies ever discussing the idea of inherent presidential powers during that speech.
Evasive Answers in Hearings - Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) says in his opening statement that he intends to press Alito on his support for what Durbin calls “a marginal theory at best… yet one you’ve said you believe.” Durbin notes that the Bush administration has repeatedly cited the theory to justify its most controversial policies and decisions, particularly in conducting its war on terror. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) adds: “The president is not a king, free to take any action he chooses without limitation, by law.… In the area of executive power, Judge Alito, you have embraced and endorsed the theory of the unitary executive. Your deferential and absolutist view of separation of powers raises questions. Under this view, in times of war the president would, for instance, seem to have inherent authority to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, to ignore Congressional acts at will, or to take any other action he saw fit under his inherent powers. We need to know, when a president goes too far, will you be a check on his power or will you issue him a blank check to exercise whatever power alone he thinks appropriate?” (Savage 2007, pp. 271-272) However, Alito refuses to address the issue in the hearings, giving what one journalist calls “either confused or less than candid” answers to questions concerning the subject.
Failure to Recall - During questioning, Alito turns aside inquiries about his avowed support for the unitary executive theory, saying he was merely talking about the idea that a president should have control over lesser executive branch officials, and was not referring to the usurpation of Congressional power by the executive. Further questions elicit nothing but a dry definition of the term. Asked about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s stinging dissent in the 2004 Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case (see June 28, 2004), where Thomas wrote that the authors of the Constitution believed a unitary executive was essential to the implementation of US foreign policies, Alito says he does not recall Thomas’s mention of the phrase. Asked about Bush’s signing statement that attempted to invalidate the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005), Alito merely recites the definition of a signing statement, and refuses to actually state his position on the issue (see February 6, 1986 and After). Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), disturbed by Alito’s refusal to address the subject, says he will vote against him in part because of Alito’s embrace of “the gospel of the unitary executive.” Kennedy cites one of the authors of the theory, law professor Steven Calabresi, one of the founders of the Federalist Society, who, Kennedy says, “acknowledged that, if the concept is implemented, it would produce a radical change in how the government operates.” (Dean 2007, pp. 100-106; Savage 2007, pp. 271-274)
ACLU Opposes Alito - The ACLU, for only the third time in its history, formally opposes Alito’s nomination, in part because of Alito’s embrace of the unitary executive theory of the presidency, citing Alito’s “expansive view of executive authority and a limited view of the judicial role in curbing abuses of that authority.” In its 86-year history, the ACLU has only opposed two other Court nominees: William Rehnquist and former Solicitor General Robert Bork. (American Civil Liberties Union 1/9/2006)
Opposition Fails - However, none of this is effective. Alito is sworn in less than a month later, after Democrats in the Senate fail to successfully mount a filibuster against his confirmation. (CNN 2/1/2006)

Bruce Fein, a former deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject of the president’s wartime authority and the illegal wiretapping of American citizens (see December 15, 2005). “This is a defining moment in the constitutional history of the United States,” Fein tells the committee. “The theory invoked by the president to justify eavesdropping by the NSA in contradiction to FISA (see April 30, 1986 and October 23, 2001) would equally justify mail openings, burglaries, torture, or internment camps, all in the name of gathering foreign intelligence. Unless rebuked it will lie around like a loaded weapon, ready to be used by any incumbent who claims an urgent need.” In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write concerning Fein’s statement: “[A] president had secretly claimed the power to ignore a law, and then he had acted on that power. In so doing, the Bush-Cheney administration unleashed imperial power. Even if they had not personally abused their power, there was no guarantee that future presidents would show the same restraint. Moreover, there was no difference in principle between the warrant law [FISA] and any other law that regulates how the president can carry out his national security responsibilities. By demonstrating that a president can set aside a statute or treaty at will, the administration had set a precedent that future presidents, liberal and conservative alike, would be able to cite when they, too, wanted to violate a legal restriction on their power.” (Savage 2007, pp. 133-134)

The American Bar Association (ABA)‘s Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine issues its final report for its investigation into whether President Bush has exceeded his presidential authority by using signing statements to assert that he can ignore or override laws passed by Congress (see June 4, 2006).
Bush Violating the Constitution - The report concludes that Bush is violating the Constitution by signing a bill and then issuing a signing statement declaring that he will refuse to obey selected sections of that bill. The president’s own belief that a particular provision of a law is unconstitutional carries no legal weight, and gives him no right to ignore or disobey that provision, the task force finds. The Constitution gives presidents only two options: veto a bill, or sign it and enforce it. “The president’s constitutional duty is to enforce laws he has signed into being, unless and until they are held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” the report reads. “The Constitution is not what the president says it is.”
De Facto Line-Item Veto - Signing statements as used by Bush and earlier presidents (see 1984-1985, August 23, 1985 - December 1985, October 1985, February 6, 1986 and After, and November 1993) are evolving into a kind of back-door line-item veto, which the Constitution does not grant presidents—especially when Congress cannot override it. “A line-item veto is not a constitutionally permissible alternative,” the report reads, “even when the president believes that some provisions of a bill are unconstitutional. A president could easily contrive a constitutional excuse to decline enforcement of any law he deplored, and transform his qualified veto into a monarch-like absolute veto.”
Bringing the Presidency Back into Alignment - Over 150 newspaper editorial boards, columnists, and cartoonists quickly endorse the ABA’s call to end the abuse of signing statements. Some critics of the ABA report say that, in attempting to avoid singling out Bush for criticism, the task force failed to address the root issue behind the signing statements—the unitary executive theory espoused by the administration (see April 30, 1986). Instead of asking that signing statements themselves be ended, some critics say, the Bush administration’s attempts to usurp other branches’ power for the presidency must be curbed. Law professor Laurence Tribe calls the Bush administration “pathological power holders” and “misfits” who are abusing a valid presidential tool. Task force member Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman, says the fundamental issue is to bring the presidency back into proper alignment with the other two branches. “It’s not about Bush, it’s about what should be the responsibility of a president,” he says. “We are saying that the president of the United States has an obligation to follow the Constitution and exercise only the authority the Constitution gives him. That’s a central tenet of American conservatism—to constrain the centralization of power.” (American Bar Association 7/23/2006 pdf file; Savage 2007, pp. 245-247)

John Yoo, a former Justice Department official, celebrates the passage of the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006). Yoo writes that Congress has ordered “the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror.” The bill is not so much a victory for the presidency, Yoo writes, as it is a loss for the judiciary, a “stinging rebuke to the Supreme Court. It strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear any habeas corpus claim filed by any alien enemy combatant anywhere in the world.” It supersedes the Court’s ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), which Yoo calls “an unprecedented attempt by the court to rewrite the law of war and intrude into war policy… [a] stunning power grab.” Now, he writes: “Congress and the president did not take the court’s power grab lying down. They told the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror, stripped them of habeas jurisdiction over alien enemy combatants, and said there was nothing wrong with the military commissions. It is the first time since the New Deal that Congress had so completely divested the courts of power over a category of cases. It is also the first time since the Civil War that Congress saw fit to narrow the court’s habeas powers in wartime because it disagreed with its decisions. The law goes farther. It restores to the president command over the management of the war on terror. It directly reverses Hamdan by making clear that the courts cannot take up the Geneva Conventions. Except for some clearly defined war crimes, whose prosecution would also be up to executive discretion, it leaves interpretation and enforcement of the treaties up to the president. It even forbids courts from relying on foreign or international legal decisions in any decisions involving military commissions.” Yoo had previously authored numerous torture memos (see October 4, 2001, November 6-10, 2001, November 20, 2001, December 21, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, January 11, 2002, January 14, 2002, January 22, 2002, January 24-26, 2002, March 13, 2002, July 22, 2002, August 1, 2002, August 1, 2002, and March 14, 2003) and opinions expanding the power of the president (see September 21, 2001, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, and June 27, 2002). (Yoo 10/19/2006)

Author and reporter Charlie Savage observes that the Bush administration went far beyond the Reagan-era vision of a “unitary executive” (see April 30, 1986). He writes that the administration decided early on—perhaps before taking office in January 2001—to combine the “unitary executive” theory with the older concept of the “inherent powers” of the presidency (see 1901-1909 and June 30, 1950). Savage writes: “The new and improved Unitary Executive Theory said that Congress could not regulate any executive power, but the theory said nothing about the potential scope of such power. When fused, the two theories transformed any conceivably inherent executive power into an exclusive one. The president could do virtually anything, without any check by Congress.” Savage notes that most legal experts from across the political spectrum have roundly rejected both theories, as has the Supreme Court (see June 2, 1952 and June 1988). “The Bush-Cheney administration legal team regularly ignored the existence of such precedents in its secret advisory opinions” (see November 16-17, 1987 and September 25, 2001). The Bush administration also used an unusual reading of Alexander Hamilton’s discussion of the executive branch’s “unity” in the Federalist Papers, article 70, in which Hamilton advocated that the president’s powers should not be limited by a body of lawmakers. As Savage points out, most legal scholars call this reading “extremely misleading,” and note that Hamilton was writing about the Founding Fathers’ decision to have a single president instead of an executive committee. In fact, Hamilton explicitly repudiated the idea of a “unitary executive” in Federalist 69. Savage writes: “Over and over again, the presidentialists’ most important legal writings failed to make any mention of Federalist 69, even as they selectively quoted tidbits of Federalist 70—and quoted them out of context—as proof for their power to act beyond the limits of statutes passed by Congress.” Conservative law professor Richard Epstein calls the Bush administration’s legal theory “just wrong,” and its lawyers’ failure to acknowledge Federalist 69 “scandalous.” Epstein says: “How can you not talk about Federalist 69? All you have to do is go on Google and put in ‘Federalist Papers’ and ‘commander in chief,’ and it pops up.” (Savage 2007, pp. 124-127)

A Justice Department investigation finds that the legal work done by John Yoo and two other former Justice lawyers for the Bush administration was unacceptably deficient. Opinions written by Yoo, his former boss Jay Bybee of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), and Bybee’s successor, Steven Bradbury, often ignored legal precedent and existing case law as they took extralegal stances on a number of controversial issues, including torture and domestic surveillance. Many of the opinions, including the August 2002 “Golden Shield” memo (see August 1, 2002), were written specifically to authorize illegal acts such as waterboarding that had already taken place, in an apparent attempt to provide the Bush administration with retroactive legal “cover.” The investigation finds that in that memo, Yoo ignored the landmark 1952 Youngstown Supreme Court ruling (see June 2, 1952) that restricts presidential authority. The investigation also finds that in the March 2003 memo authorizing the military to ignore the law in using extreme methods in interrogating suspected terrorists (see March 14, 2003), Yoo ignored the advice of military lawyers and Justice Department officials who warned that the memo contained major legal flaws. In this and others of Yoo’s torture memos, the investigation finds that he went well beyond the legal bounds of interrogation methods, failed to cite legal cases that might have undercut the Bush administration’s claims of broad new war powers, and refused to rewrite his opinions in light of these caveats. And, the investigation finds, Yoo often went over the head of Attorney General John Ashcroft and dealt directly with the White House, particularly with White House lawyers David Addington and Alberto Gonzales. The investigation was headed by H. Marshall Jarrett, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), and has been in operation since 2004, following the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the leak of one of Yoo’s “torture memos.” It is unclear whether the final OPR report will find that the actions of the former OLC lawyers rose to the level of “professional misconduct.” The report is being reviewed by Attorney General Eric Holder and other Justice Department officials. A draft was actually completed last year, and a copy was supposed to be given to Senators Richard Durbin (R-IL) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), but then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey repeatedly blocked the report’s release in order to give Yoo, Bybee, and Bradbury time to prepare their responses. Durbin and Whitehouse have asked Jarrett to explain the delay in the report’s release. (Leopold 2/22/2009)

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.” (Yoo 5/26/2009)

Law professor John Yoo, who during his tenure at the Justice Department wrote memos defending torture and the right of the executive branch to conduct its business in secret (see March 1996, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 4, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, November 2, 2001, November 5, 2001, and November 6-10, 2001), co-authors an article for the far-right American Enterprise Institute that attacks the Obama administration for considering the idea of an executive order to require government contractors to disclose their political contributions (see April 20, 2011 and May 26, 2011). The article, by Yoo and lawyer David W. Marston, is entitled “Overruling Citizens United with Chicago-Style Politics,” a reference to some of the unsavory and often-illegal political machinations undertaken by Chicago Democrats. The article repeatedly compares the Obama administration to the Nixon administration’s attempts to “use the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies,” as Yoo and Marston quote from a 1971 Nixon White House memo. Yoo and Marston say that the Obama administration, in an effort to recoup its losses from the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010]), “is making an unprecedented assault on free speech” by considering the executive order and by pushing the DISCLOSE Act (see July 26-27, 2010). (Yoo and Marston claim that the DISCLOSE Act, if passed into law, “would have forced all those doing business with the government to give up their ability to participate in the political process, as is their right under the First Amendment, aside from just voting on Election Day.”) They write: “Under the guise of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability,’ the order curtails constitutionally protected speech rights and opens the door for retaliation against those not supporting the administration politically,” and go on to observe that in their opinion, this “assault on free speech” (see January 21, 2010 and January 22, 2010) is being joined by “the media [and] defenders of free speech.” Yoo and Marston claim that the Founding Fathers intended for corporations and other entities to be able to involve themselves in politics entirely anonymously, citing the example of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison publishing the Federalist Papers under the nom de plume “Publius.” Indeed, Yoo and Marston write, “disclosure of political contributions may be a prelude to the thuggish suppression of political speech by harassment and intimidation,” and they cite the instances of boycotts, vandalism, and death threats against people in California who donated money in support of Proposition 8, which declared gay marriage illegal. “Mandated disclosure of financial support for a political viewpoint can become the springboard for lawless retaliation against citizens for holding unpopular views,” the authors write. “Disclosure” and “transparency,” the “wonder drugs du jour,” are already “being used to silence core First Amendment speech rights and to threaten America’s long protection of anonymous political speech,” they contend, and claim that “thugs” are attempting to use violence and intimidation to nullify the Citizens United decision, force the issuance of the Obama executive order, and push the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to expand disclosure requirements. Only allowing financial donors to remain secret, the authors say, protects their rights to free speech and political involvement. “[D]isclosure invites retaliation,” they argue; only secrecy can protect free speech. The authors even cite a case brought on behalf of the NAACP, in which the organization was allowed to keep its membership lists secret for fear of attacks on its members or their families by white supremacists. (Yoo and Marston 7/20/2011) Ian Millhiser, a legal expert for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, angrily rebuts Yoo and Marston’s claims. Millhiser, referencing Yoo’s opinions issued during his stint in the Bush administration, writes, “If there is anyone in the universe who should think twice before criticizing a government lawyer for enabling a president to break the law, it is John Yoo.” He goes on to criticize Yoo’s legal thinking in the article, noting that the Citizens United ruling held that “disclosure could be justified based on a governmental interest in ‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.” Millhiser writes: “President Obama’s proposed executive order provides the electorate with information about the sources of election-related spending. So Yoo’s entire argument can be rebutted in exactly two sentences.” After rebutting other portions of Yoo and Marston’s arguments, Millhiser concludes, “Yoo’s defense of corporate America’s power to secretly buy elections is weak even by his own tragically incompetent standards.” (Millhiser 7/22/2011)


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