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Context of 'December 20, 2007: Senator Challenges Justice Department’s Claims that CIA Interrogation Program Is Fully Compliant with US, International Law'

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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]

Entity Tags: Charles Fried, Reagan administration, Domestic Policy Committee, US Department of Justice, Ronald Reagan, Edwin Meese, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Rene Lerner, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), and Justice Department lawyer Adrien Silas send a memo to Assistant Attorney General William Moschella. The memo will remain classified, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will learn that it pertains to the so-called “McCain Amendment,” later known as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005). President Bush will sign the bill into law, but will include a signing statement that states the administration will not follow the law because it impinges on the president’s constitutional authority to conduct military operations (see December 30, 2005). It is unclear whether Bush’s signing statement is influenced by the memo. [ProPublica, 4/16/2009]

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, Adrien Silas, American Civil Liberties Union, US Department of Justice, Rene Lerner, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), George W. Bush, William E. Moschella

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gathers a group of senior subordinates and warns them to stay away from three senators—John McCain (R-AZ), John Warner (R-VA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who are drafting a bill to govern the handling of terrorism suspects (see December 30, 2005). A Pentagon official with direct knowledge of the meeting will later recall, “Rumsfeld made clear, emphatically, that the vice president had the lead on this issue.” Though Vice President Dick Cheney has, as he so often has done in the past, ensured that his bureaucratic fingerprints are not on the issue, he has already staked out a hardline position for the White House. This time, it came as a last-minute insert in a July 2005 “statement of administration policy” by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where Nancy Dorn, Cheney’s former chief of legislative affairs, is deputy director. Cheney’s staff adds, without the required staff clearance, a paragraph to the OMB’s guidance for the 2006 defense appropriations bill (see July 21, 2005). Among those surprised by the position is Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who for a year has advocated that the US issue clear rules about detention and interrogation of terror suspects. England attempts to clarify the issue (see Late 2005). [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]

Entity Tags: John McCain, Bush administration (43), Donald Rumsfeld, Gordon England, Office of Management and Budget, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John W. Warner, Nancy Dorn, Lindsey Graham, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Army adopts a new, classified set of interrogation methods that some feel may change the nature of the debate over cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees in US custody. The Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 30, 2005), which bases its definition of torture in part on Army standards, is currently wending its way through Congress. The new set of instructions are being added to the revised Army Field Manual, after they are approved by undersecretary of defense Stephen Cambone. The addendum provides exact details on what kinds of interrogation procedures can and cannot be used, and under what circumstances, pushing the legal limit of what interrogations can be used in ways that the Army has never done before. Some military observers believe that the new guidelines are an attempt by the Army to undercut the DTA, and many believe the bill’s sponsor, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) will be unhappy with the addendum. “This is a stick in McCain’s eye,” one official says. “It goes right up to the edge. He’s not going to be comfortable with this.” McCain has not yet been briefed on the contents of the new guidelines. McCain spokesman Mark Salter says, “This is politically obtuse and damaging. The Pentagon hasn’t done one molecule of political due diligence on this.” One Army officer says that the core of the definition of torture—what is and is not “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” treatment—“is at the crux of the problem, but we’ve never defined that.” The new Army Field Manual specifically prohibits such tactics as stress positioning, stripping prisoners, imposing dietary restrictions, using police dogs to intimidate prisoners, and sleep deprivation. The new manual is expected to be issued before the end of the year. [New York Times, 12/14/2005] The day after this is reported, President Bush agrees not to veto the DTA (see December 15, 2005).

Entity Tags: Stephen A. Cambone, Detainee Treatment Act, US Department of Defense, John McCain, US Department of the Army

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

The Bush administration relents in its opposition to the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), which would ban torture of prisoners by US personnel (see July 24, 2005 and After and December 30, 2005). President Bush meets with the bill’s primary sponsor, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, in a press conference to praise the bill. McCain says after the conference that the bill “is a done deal.” The bill still faces some opposition from Congressional Republicans such as House Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who says he won’t vote for the bill unless it can be amended to ensure that the nation’s ability to gather intelligence is not diminished. Both the House and Senate have voted by veto-proof margins to accept the bill, which is actually an amendment to a defense appropriations bill. McCain says after the conference with Bush and Warner, “We’ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists. We have no grief for them, but what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are.” Bush says the ban “is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.” McCain has been the target of months of vilification and opposition from the White House over the bill, which argued that the bill would limit Bush’s authority to protect the US from terrorist attacks, and that the bill is unnecessary because US officials do not torture. [CNN, 12/15/2005]
Loopholes - But the bill contains key loopholes that some experts believe significantly waters down the bill’s impact. Author Alfred McCoy, an expert on the CIA, notes that the bill as revised by White House officials does not give any real specifics. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will assert that the only restrictions on prisoner interrogations are the ban on “severe” psychological or physical pain, “the same linguistic legerdemain that had allowed the administration to start torturing back in 2002” (see August 1, 2002). Gonzales also implies that practices such as waterboarding are not prohibited. [TomDispatch (.com), 2/8/2006]
Legal Cover - A provision of the bill inserted after negotiation with White House officials says that CIA and military officials accused of torture can claim legal protection by arguing that they were simply following the orders of their superiors, or they have a reasonable belief that they are carrying out their superiors’ wishes. McCain dropped the original provision that all military personnel must follow the stringent guidelines for interrogation laid out in the Army Field Manual; the bill now follows the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which says that anyone accused of violating interrogation rules can defend themselves if a “reasonable” person could conclude they were following a lawful order. McCain resisted pressure from the White House to include language that would afford interrogators accused of torture protection from civil or criminal lawsuits. [CNN, 12/15/2005; Associated Press, 12/15/2005]
Controversial Amendment - Perhaps even more troubling is an amendment to the bill that would essentially strip the judiciary’s ability to enforce the ban. The amendment, originally crafted by senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and added to by Carl Levin (D-MI), denies Guantanamo detainees the right to bring legal action against US personnel who torture or abuse them—effectively denying them the fundamental legal right of habeas corpus. It also gives the Defense Department the implicit ability to consider evidence obtained through torture or inhumane treatment in assessing detainees’ status. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that the DTA marks the first time in history that Congress would allow the use of evidence obtained through torture. HRW’s Tom Malinowski says, “With the McCain amendment, Congress has clearly said that anyone who authorizes or engages in cruel techniques like water boarding is violating the law. But the Graham-Levin amendment leaves Guantanamo detainees no legal recourse if they are, in fact, tortured or mistreated. The treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees will be shrouded in secrecy, placing detainees at risk for future abuse.… If the McCain law demonstrates to the world that the United States really opposes torture, the Graham-Levin amendment risks telling the world the opposite.” [Human Rights Watch, 12/16/2005] Geoffrey Corn, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Judge Advocate General lawyer, agrees. In January 2006, he will write that the “recent compromise inclusion of an ‘obedience to orders’ defense… has effectively undermined the goal Senator John McCain fought so long to achieve. Instead of sending a clear message to US forces that cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of detainees is never permissible, the compromise has validated President Bush’s belief that the necessities of war provide the ultimate ‘trump card’ to justify ‘whatever it takes’ in the war on terror.” [Jurist, 1/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Tom Malinowski, Lindsey Graham, US Department of Defense, Jon Kyl, Uniform Code of Military Justice, John McCain, John W. Warner, Geoffrey Corn, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Alfred McCoy, Carl Levin, Detainee Treatment Act, Central Intelligence Agency, Human Rights Watch, Duncan Hunter

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Without the knowledge of many in Congress, Vice President Cheney and his allies in Congress manage to insert language into the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 30, 2005) that renders much of the bill nearly worthless. Some of the widest exceptions are inserted without the knowledge of all but a very few Congressmen. One is the exemption for the CIA, which instead of being bound by the interrogation techniques described in the US Army Field Manual, is only forbidden in general to employ “cruel” or “inhuman” methods. Those terms will be defined in light of US constitutional law. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision that cruelty is an act that “shocks the conscience,” Cheney’s chief lawyer, David Addington, has argued that harsh interrogations would be much less shocking if performed on detainees suspected of planning or taking part in mass casualty terrorist attacks. What “shocks the conscience” is to an extent “in the eye of the beholder,” Cheney has already said. [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Central Intelligence Agency, Detainee Treatment Act, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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.” [Boston Globe, 1/4/2006; Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Detainee Treatment Act, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman, Bush administration (43), David Golove, Elisa Massamino

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman, a former Justice Department official under both the Bush and Clinton administrations, notes the recent signing statement from the White House that essentially states President Bush will ignore the newly authorized Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005). “So much for the president’s assent to the McCain Amendment” (see December 15, 2005), Lederman writes. Of Bush’s signing statement itself, he writes: “Translation: I reserve the constitutional right to waterboard when it will ‘assist’ in protecting the American people from terrorist attacks.… You didn’t think [Vice President] Cheney and [Cheney’s chief of staff David] Addington (see December 30, 2005) were going to go down quietly, did you?” [Marty Lederman, 1/2/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 225]

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

The three Republican senators who co-sponsored the recently passed Detainee Treatment Act prohibiting torture (see December 15, 2005) criticize President Bush for his signing statement indicating that he would not follow the law if he sees fit (see December 30, 2005). Senators John McCain (R-AZ), the primary sponsor of the bill, and John Warner (R-VA) issue a statement rejecting Bush’s signing statement. “We believe the president understands Congress’s intent in passing, by very large majorities, legislation governing the treatment of detainees,” the senators write. “The Congress declined when asked by administration officials to include a presidential waiver of the restrictions included in our legislation. Our committee intends through strict oversight to monitor the administration’s implementation of the new law.” The third co-sponsor, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), says he agrees with the letter, “and would go a little bit further.” Graham says: “I do not believe that any political figure in the country has the ability to set aside any… law of armed conflict that we have adopted or treaties that we have ratified. If we go down that road, it will cause great problems for our troops in future conflicts because [nothing] is to prevent other nations’ leaders from doing the same.” The White House refuses to respond to the senators’ comments. Law professor David Golove, a specialist in executive power issues, says the senators’ statements “mean that the battle lines are drawn” for an escalating fight over the balance of power between the two branches of government. “The president is pointing to his commander in chief power, claiming that it somehow gives him the power to dispense with the law when he’s conducting war,” Golove says. “The senators are saying: ‘Wait a minute, we’ve gone over this. This is a law Congress has passed by very large margins, and you are compelled and bound to comply with it.’” Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First says the senators’ statements should warn military and CIA interrogators that they could be subject to prosecution if they torture or abuse a detainee, regardless of Bush’s signing statement. “That power [to override the law] was explicitly sought by the White House, and it was considered and rejected by the Congress,” she says. “And any US official who relies on legal advice from a government lawyer saying there is a presidential override of a law passed by Congress does so at their peril. Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment is illegal.” Golove notes that it is highly unlikely that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would prosecute anyone for performing actions Bush had authorized. [Boston Globe, 1/5/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 225-226]

Entity Tags: David Golove, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, John W. Warner, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Elisa Massimino

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Samuel Alito, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Beth Nolan, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), US Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In his column for the legal website FindLaw, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes: “Rather than veto laws passed by Congress, [George W.] Bush is using his signing statements to effectively nullify them as they relate to the executive branch. These statements, for him, function as directives to executive branch departments and agencies as to how they are to implement the relevant law.… Bush has quietly been using these statements to bolster presidential powers. It is a calculated, systematic scheme that has gone largely unnoticed.… It is as if no law had been passed on the matter at all.… Bush is using signing statements like line item vetoes.” Dean writes that Bush’s signing statement for the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005) marks the first time that serious media attention has been focused on the statements. He writes, “Despite the McCain Amendment’s clear anti-torture stance, the military may feel free to use torture anyway, based on the President’s attempt to use a signing statement to wholly undercut the bill.” [FindLaw, 1/13/2006]

Entity Tags: John Dean, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Al Gore speaks to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society.Al Gore speaks to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society. [Source: American Constitution Society]Former Vice President Al Gore delivers a long, impassioned speech on civil liberties and constitutional issues to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society. Gore joins former Representative Bob Barr (R-GA) in speaking out against the Bush administration’s infringement on American civil liberties. Gore and Barr have what Gore calls a “shared concern that America’s Constitution is in grave danger.”
Patently Illegal Domestic Surveillance - Gore’s speech is sparked by recent revelations that the NSA has been spying on American citizens for years (see December 15, 2005), and in response, the administration “has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress precisely to prevent such abuses.” As the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) is perfectly sufficient, there was no need for the Bush administration to circumvent that law. “At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA’s domestic surveillance,” Gore says. “What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently. A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government.” Gore says he agrees with Bush on the threat of terrorism, but disagrees that the US has to “break the law or sacrifice our system of government” to protect itself, as this will make it “weaker and more vulnerable.” In addition, he says, “once violated, the rule of law is itself in danger,” and, “Unless stopped, lawlessness grows, the greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles.” It is patently obvious that the Bush administration has broken the law in conducting and approving its warrantless wiretaps, Gore says, regardless of what arguments and defenses administration officials may put forth (see September 12-18, 2001 and Early 2002). So, Gore says, “When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him the power he wanted when this measure was passed, he secretly assumed that power anyway, as if Congressional authorization was a useless bother. But as [Supreme Court] Justice [Felix] Frankfurter once wrote, ‘To find authority so explicitly withheld is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between the president and the Congress.‘… And the disrespect embodied in these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political parties.”
Illegal Seizure of American Citizens - Gore notes that Bush has declared that he has “a heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our nation, and that notwithstanding his American citizenship that person in prison has no right to talk with a lawyer, even if he wants to argue that the president or his appointees have made a mistake and imprisoned the wrong person” (see November 13, 2001 and March 5, 2002). He says: “The president claims that he can imprison that American citizen—any American citizen he chooses—indefinitely, for the rest of his life, without even an arrest warrant, without notifying them of what charges have been filed against them, without even informing their families that they have been imprisoned.” Gore then says: “No such right exists in the America that you and I know and love. It is foreign to our Constitution. It must be rejected.”
Specious Authority to Torture - Neither does the executive branch have the right to authorize torture, Gore says. After citing horrific examples from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, he calls it “a shameful exercise of power that overturns a set of principles that you’re nation has observed since General George Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War. They have been observed by every president since then until now. They violate the Geneva Conventions, the International Convention Against Torture, and our own laws against torture.”
Unlawful Kidnapping of Foreign Citizens - The president has no right to have foreign citizens kidnapped from their homes and brought to the US for interrogation and imprisonment, or worse, delivered to other nations for harsh interrogations and torture, says Gore. The closest allies of the US have been shocked by such claims.
No Restraint in the Constitution? - Gore asks whether the president really has such powers under the Constitution and, if so, “are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited?” He quotes the dean of Yale’s law school, Harold Koh, who said, “If the president has commander in chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.” Gore is “deeply troubl[ed]” that “our normal American safeguards have thus far failed to contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power.” He cites the numerous usage of “signing statements” by Bush that signal his intent “not to comply” with particular legislation (see December 30, 2005). When the Supreme Court struck down Bush’s indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” (see June 28, 2004), “the president then engaged in legal maneuvers designed to prevent the court from providing any meaningful content to the rights of the citizens affected.”
Historical Cycles - Since the founding of America, Gore says, the country has abrogated its citizens’ rights in one circumstance or another, and cites numerous examples. But those abrogations were always rectified to some degree in a repeated cycle of what he calls “excess and regret.” Gore is worried that the country may not be in such a cycle now. Instead, he says, the US may be on a path to permanent, state-sanctioned authoritarianism, with the constitutional safeguards American citizens have come to expect eroded and undermined to the point of irretrievability. Gore specifically cites the administration’s support for the so-called “unitary executive” theory of government, which he says “ought to be more accurately described as the unilateral executive.” That theory “threatens to expand the president’s powers until the contours of the Constitution that the framers actually gave us become obliterated beyond all recognition.”
Stark Authoritarianism - Why are Bush and his top officials doing this? Gore says that “[t]he common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control. The same pattern has characterized the effort to silence dissenting views within the executive branch, to censor information that may be inconsistent with its stated ideological goals, and to demand conformity from all executive branch employees.” Gore continues: “Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time. The only check on it is that, sooner or later, a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. Two thousand two hundred American soldiers have lost their lives as this false belief bumped into a solid reality.”
Gutting Congress - Though serious damage has been done to the judicial branch, Gore acknowledges, “the most serious damage in our constitutional framework has been to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of Congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the executive to attain this massive expansion of its power.… [T]he legislative branch of government as a whole, under its current leadership, now operates as if it were entirely subservient to the executive branch.… [T]he whole process is largely controlled by the incumbent president and his political organization” (see February 1, 2004). Gore says each member of Congress, Republican and Democrat, must “uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of American government that you are supposed to be under the Constitution of our country.”
We the People - The American people still, for the moment, have the power to enforce the Constitution, Gore says, quoting former President Dwight Eisenhower, who said, “Any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.” Gore continues: “Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction.… The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the full Bill of Rights. Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of nuclear missiles ready to be launched on a moment’s notice to completely annihilate the country?” [Congressional Quarterly, 1/16/2006; American Constitutional Society, 1/16/2006]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Liberty Coalition, US Supreme Court, Harold Koh, George W. Bush, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., American Constitution Society, Bush administration (43), Convention Against Torture, Felix Frankfurter, George Washington, Geneva Conventions, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Robert “Bob” Barr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush says that the recently passed Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005) has no loopholes that would allow US interrogators to torture prisoners. “No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world,” he says (see December 30, 2005 and January 2, 2006). [Ireland Online, 1/26/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Detainee Treatment Act

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) file an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006) saying that because of the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005), the Court no longer has jurisdiction over the case. Graham and Kyl argue their point by citing the “legislative history” of the DTA, in particular the official statements Graham and Kyl made during debate over the bill, and specifically an “extensive colloquy” between the two that appears in the Congressional Record for December 21, 2005. Graham and Kyl argue that this “colloquy,” which argues that Guantanamo prisoners have no rights under the standard of habeas corpus, stands as evidence that “Congress was aware” that the DTA would strip the Court of jurisdiction over cases that involve Guantanamo detainees. (The Senate included an amendment written by Graham, Kyl, and Carl Levin (D-MI) to the DTA that would reject habeas claims in future court cases, but does not apply retroactively to cases already filed, such as Hamdan.) However, Graham and Kyl never engaged in such a discussion on the floor of the Senate. Instead, they had the text inserted in the Record just before the law passed (see December 30, 2005), meaning that no one in Congress heard their discussion. The brief indicates that the discussion happened during the debate over the bill when it did not. The Record indicates that the discussion that did take place concerning the Hamdan case comes from Democrats, and explicitly state that the DTA has no bearing on the case. C-SPAN video coverage of the debate proves that Graham and Kyl never made those statements, and Senate officials confirm that the discussion was inserted later into the Record. But in their brief, Graham and Kyl state that “the Congressional Record is presumed to reflect live debate except when the statements therein are followed by a bullet… or are underlined.” The Record shows no such formatting, therefore, says the brief, it must have been live. The debate between Graham and Kyl is even written to make it appear as if it had taken place live, with Graham and Kyl answering each other’s questions, Kyl noting that he is nearing the end of his allotted time, and another senator, Sam Brownback (R-KS) apparently attempting to interject a question. Lawyers for the prosecution will strenuously object to the brief, and Justice Department defense lawyers will use the brief as a centerpiece for their argument that the Supreme Court should throw the case out. [US Supreme Court, 2/2006 pdf file; Slate, 3/27/2006; FindLaw, 7/5/2006] Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call the brief “a blatant scam,” and will accuse Graham and Kyl of “misle[ading] their Senate colleagues, but also sham[ing] their high offices by trying to deliberately mislead the US Supreme Court.… I have not seen so blatant a ploy, or abuse of power, since Nixon’s reign.… [Graham and Kyl] brazenly attempted to hoodwink the Court regarding the actions of Congress in adopting the DTA.” [FindLaw, 7/5/2006] Their efforts will not be successful, as the Supreme Court will ultimately rule against the Republican position in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006).

Entity Tags: John Dean, Detainee Treatment Act, US Department of Justice, US Supreme Court, Samuel Brownback, Jon Kyl, Lindsey Graham, Carl Levin

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law.President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law. [Source: White House]President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act (MCA) into law. [White House, 10/17/2006] The MCA is designed to give the president the authority to order “enemy detainees” tried by military commissions largely outside the scope of US civil and criminal procedures. The bill was requested by the Bush administration after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (see June 28, 2004) that the US could not hold prisoners indefinitely without access to the US judicial system, and that the administration’s proposal that they be tried by military tribunals was unconstitutional (see June 28, 2004). [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] It is widely reported that the MCA does not directly apply to US citizens, but to only non-citizens defined as “enemy combatants. [CBS News, 10/19/2006] However, six months later, a Bush administration lawyer will confirm that the administration believes the law does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).
Sweeping New Executive Powers - The MCA virtually eliminates the possibility that the Supreme Court can ever again act as a check on a president’s power in the war on terrorism. Similarly, the law gives Congressional approval to many of the executive powers previously, and unilaterally, seized by the Bush administration. Former Justice Department official John Yoo celebrates the MCA, writing, “Congress… told the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror” (see October 19, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 319, 322]
'Abandoning' Core 'Principles' - The bill passed the Senate on a 65-34 vote, and the House by a 250-170 vote. The floor debate was often impassioned and highly partisan; House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) called Democrats who opposed the bill “dangerous,” and Senate Judiciary Committee member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said this bill showed that the US is losing its “moral compass.” Leahy asked during the debate, “Why would we allow the terrorists to win by doing to ourselves what they could never do, and abandon the principles for which so many Americans today and through our history have fought and sacrificed?” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) had said he would vote against it because it is “patently unconstitutional on its face,” but then voted for it, saying he believes the courts will eventually “clean it up.” Specter’s attempt to amend the bill to provide habeas corpus rights for enemy combatants was defeated, as were four Democratic amendments. Republicans have openly used the debate over the MCA as election-year fodder, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) saying after the vote that “House Democrats have voted to protect the rights of terrorists,” and Boehner decrying “the Democrats’ irrational opposition to strong national security policies.” Democrats such as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) say they will not fight back at such a level. “There will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be called everything from cut-and-run quitters to Defeatocrats, to people who care more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans,” Obama says. “While I know all of this, I’m still disappointed, and I’m still ashamed, because what we’re doing here today—a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused—should be bigger than politics.” [Washington Post, 10/19/2006] After winning the vote, Hastert accused Democrats who opposed the bill of “putting their liberal agenda ahead of the security of America.” Hastert said the Democrats “would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans’ lives” and create “new rights for terrorists.” [New York Times, 10/19/2006]
Enemy Combatants - The MCA applies only to “enemy combatants.” Specifically, the law defines an “unlawful enemy combatant” as a person “who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents,” and who is not a lawful combatant. Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch says the definition far exceeds the traditionally accepted definition of combatant as someone who directly participates in hostilities. But under the MCA, someone who provides “material support” for terrorists—whether that be in the form of financial contributions or sweeping the floors at a terrorist camp—can be so defined. Worse, the label can be applied without recourse by either Bush or the secretary of defense, after a “competent tribunal” makes the determination. The MCA provides no guidelines as to what criteria these tribunals should use. Taken literally, the MCA gives virtually unrestricted power to the tribunals to apply the label as requested by the president or the secretary. Mariner believes the definition is both “blatantly unconstitutional” and a direct contradiction of centuries of Supreme Court decisions that define basic judicial rights. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] Under this definition, the president can imprison, without charge or trial, any US citizen accused of donating money to a Middle East charity that the government believes is linked to terrorist activity. Citizens associated with “fringe” groups such as the left-wing Black Panthers or right-wing militias can be incarcerated without trial or charge. Citizens accused of helping domestic terrorists can be so imprisoned. Law professor Bruce Ackerman calls the MCA “a massive Congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants,” and warns that the law may “haunt all of us on the morning after the next terrorist attack” by enabling a round of mass detentions similar to the roundup of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. [Savage, 2007, pp. 322]
Military Commissions - The MCA mandates that enemy combatants are to be tried by military commissions, labeled “regularly constituted courts that afford all the necessary ‘judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples’ for purposes of common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.” The commissions must have a minimum of five commissioned military officers and a military judge; if death is a possible penalty, the commissions must have at least 12 officers. The defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; convictions require a two-thirds vote. Sentences of beyond 10 years require a three-quarters vote, and death penalties must be unanimously voted for. Defendants may either represent themselves or by military or civilian counsel. The court procedures themselves, although based on standard courts-martial proceedings, are fluid, and can be set or changed as the secretary of defense sees fit. Statements obtained through methods defined as torture are inadmissible, but statements take by coercion and “cruel treatment” can be admitted. The MCA sets the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005) as a benchmark—statements obtained before the December 30, 2005 enactment of that law can be used, even if the defendant was “coerced,” if a judge finds the statement “reasonable and possessing sufficient probative value.” Statements after that date must have been taken during interrogations that fall under the DTA guidelines. Defendants have the right to examine and respond to evidence seen by the commission, a provision originally opposed by the administration. However, if the evidence is classified, an unclassified summary of that material is acceptable, and classified exculpatory evidence can be denied in lieu of what the MCA calls “acceptable substitutes.” Hearsay evidence is admissible, as is evidence obtained without search warrants. Generally, defendants will not be allowed to inquire into the classified “sources, methods, or activities” surrounding evidence against them. Some human rights activists worry that evidence obtained through torture can be admitted, and the fact that it was obtained by torture, if that detail is classified, will not be presented to the court or preclude the evidence from being used. Public access to the commissions will be quite limited. Many experts claim these commissions are illegal both by US constitutional law and international law. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
Secret Courts - The military tribunals can be partially or completely closed to public scrutiny if the presiding judge deems such an action necessary to national security. The government can convey such concerns to the judge without the knowledge of the defense. The judge can exclude the accused from the trial if he deems it necessary for safety or if he decides the defendant is “disruptive.” Evidence can be presented in secret, without the knowledge of the defense and without giving the defense a chance to examine that evidence, if the judge finds that evidence “reliable.” And during the trial, the prosecution can at any time assert a “national security privilege” that would stop “the examination of any witness” if that witness shows signs of discussing sensitive security matters. This provision can easily be used to exclude any potential defense witness who might “breach national security” with their testimony. Author and investigative reporter Robert Parry writes, “In effect, what the new law appears to do is to create a parallel ‘star chamber’ system for the prosecution, imprisonment, and elimination of enemies of the state, whether those enemies are foreign or domestic.” [Consortium News, 10/19/2006]
Appeals - Guilty verdicts are automatically appealed to a Court of Military Commission Review, consisting of three appellate military justices. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals has extremely limited authority of review of the commissions; even its authority to judge whether a decision is consistent with the Constitution is limited “to the extent [that the Constitution is] applicable.”
Types of Crimes - Twenty-eight specific crimes fall under the rubric of the military commissions, including conspiracy (not a traditional war crime), murder of protected persons, murder in violation of the bill of war, hostage-taking, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, rape, sexual abuse or assault, hijacking, terrorism, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
CIA Abuses - The MCA, responding to the recent Supreme Court decision of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006) that found the CIA’s secret detention program and abusive interrogation practices illegal, redefines and amends the law to make all but the most pernicious interrogation practices, even those defined as torture by the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions, legal. The MCA actually rules that the Geneva Conventions are all but unenforceable in US courts. It also provides retroactive protection under the law to all actions as far back as November 1997. Under the MCA, practices such as waterboarding, stress positioning, and sleep deprivation cannot be construed as torture. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] The MCA even states that rape as part of interrogations cannot be construed as torture unless the intent of the rapist to torture his victim can be proven, a standard rejected by international law. The MCA provides such a narrow definition of coercion and sexual abuse that most of the crimes perpetrated at Abu Ghraib are now legal. [Jurist, 10/4/2006] Although the MCA seems to cover detainee abuse for all US agencies, including the CIA, Bush says during the signing of the bill, “This bill will allow the Central Intelligence Agency to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives.” International law expert Scott Horton will note, “The administration wanted these prohibitions on the military and not on the CIA, but it did not work out that way.” Apparently Bush intends to construe the law to exempt the CIA from its restrictions, such as they are, on torture and abuse of prisoners. [Salon, 5/22/2007]
No Habeas Corpus Rights - Under the MCA, enemy combatants no longer have the right to file suit under the habeas corpus provision of US law. This means that they cannot challenge the legality of their detention, or raise claims of torture and mistreatment. Even detainees who have been released can never file suit to seek redress for their treatment while in US captivity. [FindLaw, 10/25/2006]
Retroactive Immunity - The administration added a provision to the MCA that rewrote the War Crimes Act retroactively to November 26, 1997, making any offenses considered war crimes before the MCA is adopted no longer punishable under US law. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2007 that the only reason he can fathom for the change is to protect administration officials—perhaps including President Bush himself—from any future prosecutions as war criminals. Dean will note that if the administration actually believes in the inherent and indisputable powers of the presidency, as it has long averred, then it would not worry about any such criminal liability. [Dean, 2007, pp. 239-240]

Entity Tags: Human Rights Watch, Joanne Mariner, US Supreme Court, Patrick J. Leahy, Military Commissions Act, John Dean, George W. Bush, Scott Horton, Geneva Conventions, Bruce Ackerman, Dennis Hastert, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Detainee Treatment Act, Arlen Specter, War Crimes Act, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), John Boehner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush signs Executive Order 13440, which authorizes the CIA to continue using so-called “harsh” interrogation methods against anyone in US custody suspected of being a terrorist, or having knowledge of terrorist activities. The order relies on, and reaffirms, Bush’s classification of “al-Qaeda, Taliban, and associated forces” as “unlawful enemy combatants” who are not covered under the Geneva Conventions. The order also emphasizes that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) “reaffirms and reinforces the authority of the president to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions.” The order does not include “murder, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, rape, sexual assault or abuse, taking of hostages, or performing of biological experiments… other acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel or inhuman treatment… any other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment prohibited” by law. It also precludes acts of extreme humiliation “that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, [or] threatening the individual with sexual mutilation, or using the individual as a human shield.” The order also excludes acts that denigrate a detainee’s religion or religious practices. [White House, 7/20/2007] The order does not apply to the Army, which has numerous interrogators operating at Guantanamo and other US detention facilities. [Social Science Research Network, 3/18/2008] CIA Director Michael Hayden says, “We can now focus on our vital work, confident that our mission and authorities are clearly defined.” Administration officials say that because of the order, suspects now in US custody can be moved immediately into the “enhanced interrogation” program. Civil libertarians and human rights advocates are much less enamored of the new order. Human Rights Watch official Tom Malinowski says, “All the order really does is to have the president say, ‘Everything in that other document that I’m not showing you is legal—trust me.’” [Washington Post, 7/21/2007] In January 2009, President Obama will withdraw the order. [Washington Independent, 4/21/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Army, Tom Malinowski, Taliban, George W. Bush, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Military Commissions Act, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Ron Wyden.Ron Wyden. [Source: Public domain / US Congress]Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) writes to the Justice Department’s acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), Steven Bradbury, asking for clarification of the Bush administration’s stance on the Geneva Conventions as they apply to the interrogation of detainees. Wyden notes that President Bush has recently affirmed that the US would observe the conventions’ standards on humane treatment of all prisoners, and asks precisely how the OLC defines the concept of “humane treatment.” Wyden wants to know what circumstances definitions of that term might vary under, and asks the same questions of the term “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” The principal deputy assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski, will answer Wyden’s letter on September 27, 2007 (see September 27, 2007). [US Senate, 8/8/2007 pdf file]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Geneva Conventions, Steven Bradbury, Ron Wyden, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

President Bush has abused his prerogative to issue “signing statements” that state the White House’s interpretion of Congressionally passed laws (see Early 2005), according to former White House counsel John Dean and constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe.
History - Signing statements have no weight in law, but presidents have traditionally used them to state their belief that a particular legislative provision is unconstitutional, and on rare occasion (before the current president) to state their refusal to enforce that provision. Since Jimmy Carter’s administration, various Justice Department officials have said presidents can refuse to enforce a particular provision of signed, legally binding legislation. [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116] A group of young conservative lawyers in the Reagan administration decided that signing statements were a powerful, and stealthy, way to expand presidential power.
Dean: Bush's Use of Signing Statements 'Extraordinary' - However, Dean says that Bush has used signing statements far more extensively than any president before him. Dean notes that, while presidential signing statements themselves are not illegal or inherently wrong, “[i]t is Bush’s abuse of them that is extraordinary.” Dean writes there has been no concerted effort to find out if Bush is just saying he will not comply with the inordinate number of legislative provisions he has objected to, or if he is refusing to comply with them in practice. If the latter is the case, Dean writes, “he should be impeached immediately… because it would be an extraordinary breach of his oath” of office.
Tribe: Bush's Signing Statements 'Bizarre,' 'Reckless' - Dean cites Tribe, who said in 2006, “[W]hat is new and distressing [about Bush’s use of signing statements] is the bizarre, frighteningly self-serving, and constitutionally reckless character of those views—and the suspicion that the president either intends actually to act on them with some regularity, often in a manner that won’t be publicly visible at the time, or intends them as declarations of hegemony and contempt for the coordinate branches—declarations that he hopes will gradually come to be accepted in the constitutional culture as descriptions of the legal and political landscape properly conceived and as precedents for later action either by his own or by future administrations.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116; Joyce Green, 2007] Political science professor Christopher Kelley agrees. Kelley, who studied the Bush administration’s use of signing statements, says: “What we haven’t seen until this administration is the sheer number of objections that are being raised on every bill passed through the White House. That is what is staggering. The numbers are well out of the norm from any previous administration.”
Signing Statements Supplanting Vetoes - In another disturbing trend, according to author and reporter Charlie Savage, Bush is using signing statements to supplant the traditional presidential veto. By mid-2007, Bush had vetoed just two bills. In contrast, Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, vetoed 37 bills. George H. W. Bush vetoed 44, and Ronald Reagan vetoed 78. Legal experts studying Bush’s signing statements conclude that Bush and his legal team are using signing statements to function almost as line-item vetoes, a power the president does not have. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the Founding Fathers wanted the president to either accept a Congressional bill or reject it entirely, and if Congress overrode the veto, then the president had no other recourse than to follow the new law. But now, Savage writes, “the Bush-Cheney administration had figured out that if a president signed a bill and then instructed the government to consider selected provisions null (see December 30, 2005), he could accomplish much the same thing. Moreover, it was an absolute power because, unlike when there is a regular veto, Congress had no opportunity to override his legal judgments.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 230-231]

Entity Tags: Laurence Tribe, John Dean, US Department of Justice, George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Christopher Kelley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department’s Brian Benczkowski answers Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)‘s request for clarification of the terms “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” as it applies to suspected terrorists in US custody. Benczkowski writes that the government uses the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) and a recent executive order, Order #13440 (authorizing the continued use of harsh interrogation methods—see July 20, 2007) to determine how the US will comply with the Geneva Conventions. Benczkowski writes that Order 13440 and the Army Field Manual, among other guidelines, ensure that any interrogations carried out by US personnel comply with Geneva.
Geneva Does Not Clearly Define 'Humane Treatment' - He goes on to note that the term “humane treatment” is not directly defined by Geneva, but “rather provides content by enumerating the specific prohibitions that would contravene that standard.” Common Article 3, the statute in the Conventions that specifically addresses the treatment of prisoners, expressly prohibits “violence” including “murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” It also prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity,” including “humiliating and degrading treatment.” Benczkowski writes that there is no accepted international standard as to what is defined as “humane treatment” and what is not, outside of the basic provisions of food, water, clothing, shelter, and protection from extremes of temperature. Given this standard, he writes, the Bush administration does ensure that “all detainees within the CIA program shall be treated humanely.”
Defined by Circumstances - He goes on to note that Geneva seems to grant some leeway for interpretation as to what complies with its standards, particularly in the area of “outrages upon personal dignity.” Citing a previous international tribunal, he writes, “To rise to the level of an outrage, the conduct must be ‘animated by contempt for the human dignity of another person’ and it must be so deplorable that the reasonable observer would recognize it as something that must be universally condemned.” None of the methods used by US interrogators contravenes any of these standards as the Justice Department interprets them, Benczkowski concludes. As for the question of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” or as he abbreviates it, “CIDT,” Benczkowski writes that such treatment is prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. However, circumstances determine what is and is not CIDT, he writes; even “in evaluating whether a homicide violates Common Article 3, it would be necessary to consider the circumstances surrounding the act.” The CIA interrogation program fully complies with Common Article 3, various statutes and Supreme Court decisions, and the Bill of Rights, Benczkowski asserts. [US Department of Justice, 9/27/2007 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Geneva Conventions, Ron Wyden, Military Commissions Act

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

In a blistering editorial, the New York Times lambasts both the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership in the Senate for allowing Michael Mukasey, the new attorney general, to slide through the confirmation process with so little challenge (see November 8, 2007). The only thing left in the Senate’s traditional responsibility of “advice and consent” is the “consent” part, the editors write. The editorial continues: “Once upon a time, the confirmation of major presidential appointments played out on several levels—starting, of course, with politics. It was assumed that a president would choose like-minded people as cabinet members and for other jobs requiring Senate approval. There was a presumption that he should be allowed his choices, all other things being equal. Before George W. Bush’s presidency, those other things actually counted. Was the nominee truly qualified, with a professional background worthy of the job? Would he discharge his duties fairly and honorably, upholding his oath to protect the Constitution? Even though [he or] she answers to the president, would the nominee represent all Americans? Would he or she respect the power of Congress to supervise the executive branch, and the power of the courts to enforce the rule of law? In less than seven years, Mr. Bush has managed to boil that list down to its least common denominator: the president should get his choices.” The Times observes that in the first six years of Bush’s rule, he had an enthusiastically compliant set of Republican allies in Congress, but during that time, minority Democrats “did almost nothing… to demand better nominees than Mr. Bush was sending up. And now that they have attained the majority, they are not doing any better.” The editors focus particularly on two issues: Mukasey’s refusal to answer straightforward questions on whether waterboarding is torture, and the Democrats’ refusal to filibuster the Senate vote. The Times notes that Mukasey passed confirmation with a 53-40 vote. Democrats have made what the Times calls “excuses for their sorry record” on a host of issues, and first and foremost is the justification that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. “So why did Mr. Mukasey get by with only 53 votes?” the Times asks. “Given the success the Republicans have had in blocking action when the Democrats cannot muster 60 votes, the main culprit appears to be the Democratic leadership, which seems uninterested in or incapable of standing up to Mr. Bush.” The editors do not accept the rationale of Mukasey supporters like Charles Schumer (D-NY), who argued that by not confirming Mukasey, the path would be clear for Bush to make an interim appointment of someone far more extreme. The Times calls this line of argument “cozy rationalization,” and by Mukasey’s refusal to answer questions about his position on waterboarding, he has already aligned himself with the extremist wing of the administration. For the record, the Times notes, “Waterboarding is specifically banned by the Army Field Manual, and it is plainly illegal under the federal Anti-Torture Act, federal assault statutes, the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005), the Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994), and the Geneva Conventions.” Therefore, “[i]t is hard to see how any nominee worthy of the position of attorney general could fail to answer ‘yes.’” The Times speculates that Mukasey was not permitted to answer the question by the White House because a “no” answer “might subject federal officials who carried out Mr. Bush’s orders to abuse and torture prisoners after the 9/11 attacks: the right answer could have exposed them to criminal sanctions.” All in all, the Times is appalled by “the Senate giving the job of attorney general, chief law enforcement officer in the world’s oldest democracy, to a man who does not even have the integrity to take a stand against torture.” [New York Times, 11/11/2007]

Entity Tags: Michael Mukasey, New York Times, Geneva Conventions, Bush administration (43), Charles Schumer, George W. Bush, Convention Against Torture, Detainee Treatment Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) replies to a letter from the Justice Department that claims the CIA’s detainee interrogation program is fully compliant with the Geneva Conventions and with US and international law (see September 27, 2007). Wyden challenges the legal rationale for the claims, noting that the cases cited do not directly apply to the question of whether the definitions of “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” can vary depending on the identity of the detainee and the circumstances surrounding his interrogation. He also challenges the Justice Department’s rather narrow interpretation of the protections afforded by the Eighth Amendment and the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005). [US Senate, 3/6/2008 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, US Department of Justice, Ron Wyden, Geneva Conventions

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive Republican nominee for president, urges President Bush to veto an upcoming bill prohibiting waterboarding and other extreme methods of interrogation after himself voting against the bill. The bill passes the Senate on a largely partisan 51-45 vote. It has already passed the House on a similar party-line vote, and Bush has already announced his intention to veto the bill. McCain has won a reputation as an advocate of prisoner rights and a staunch opponent of torture; his five-year stint as a POW in North Vietnam is well-known. But McCain voted against the legislation when it came up for a vote in the Senate, and he opposes the bill now. McCain says he is opposed to waterboarding, but does not want the CIA restricted to following the practices outlined in the US Army Field Manual, as the legislation would require. McCain says: “I knew I would be criticized for it. I think I can show my record is clear. I said there should be additional techniques allowed to other agencies of government as long as they were not” torture. “I was on the record as saying that they could use additional techniques as long as they were not cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. So the vote was in keeping with my clear record of saying that they could have additional techniques, but those techniques could not violate” international rules against torture. McCain has said he believes waterboarding is already prohibited by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (see December 30, 2005). And CIA director Michael Hayden has said that current law may well prohibit waterboarding; he claims to have stopped CIA agents from waterboarding detainees in 2006, and also claims that the technique was not used later than 2003. McCain’s Senate colleague, Charles Schumer (D-NY) says that if Bush vetoes the bill, then he in essence “will be voting in favor of waterboarding.” [New York Times, 2/13/2008; Associated Press, 2/21/2008] Bush will indeed veto the bill (see March 8, 2008).

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, George W. Bush, John McCain, Michael Hayden, Central Intelligence Agency, Charles Schumer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Justice Department attorney Brian Benczkowski replies to a follow-up letter from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is challenging the department’s claims that the CIA detainee interrogation program is fully compliant with US and international law (see December 20, 2007). Much of Benczkowski’s letter is a reiteration of points made in an earlier letter (see September 27, 2007), even citing the same legal cases that Wyden challenged as not directly relevant to the Justice Department’s arguments. Benczkowski reiterates that the definitions of “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” are flexible, in the department’s view, and can change drastically depending on the identity of the detainee and the circumstances surrounding his interrogation. The standards of compliance are also mitigated by the “nature and importance of the government interest,” he claims, giving as an example the possibility of abrogating a detainee’s fundamental rights under the Geneva Conventions and other statutes in order to force information about an impending terrorist attack from him. Benczkowski reiterates that the Eighth Amendment only applies to prisoners after they have been convicted of a crime; hence, detainees never tried or charged for crimes have no rights under that amendment. It is apparent that Benczkowski considers the discussion closed; he concludes his letter with the statement, “Please do not hesitate to contact the Department if we can be of assistance in other matters.” [US Department of Justice, 3/6/2008 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Brian A. Benczkowski, Ron Wyden, Geneva Conventions, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

In recent letters to Congress, the Justice Department has suggested that the Geneva Conventions’ ban on “outrages against personal dignity” does not automatically apply to terrorism suspects in the custody of US intelligence agencies (see August 8, 2007 and March 6, 2008). The letters are just now being made public, with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) making them available to the Washington Post. Last year, Wyden asked the Justice Department to provide an explanation for President Bush’s 2007 executive order authorizing the CIA to continue using so-called “harsh interrogation techniques” on detainees (see July 20, 2007) even as Bush claimed US interrogators would always observe Geneva restrictions. The department responded with several letters that reasserted the Bush administration’s contentions that it is not bound by domestic law or international treaties in deciding how the Geneva Conventions apply to the interrogation of terror suspects. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; Voice of America, 4/27/2008]
'Humane Treatment' Subject to Interpretation, Circumstances - The Justice Department acknowledges that the US is bound by Common Article 3 of the Conventions, which requires that a signatory nation treat its detainees humanely; however, the letters say that the definition of “humane treatment” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and can depend on the detainee’s identity and the importance of the information he possesses. In a letter written to a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the principal deputy assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski, wrote, “Some prohibitions… such as the prohibition on ‘outrages against personal dignity,’ do invite the consideration of the circumstances surrounding the action.” The government can weigh “the identity and information possessed by a detainee” in deciding whether to use harsh and potentially inhumane techniques, according to Benczkowski. A suspect with information about a future attack, for example, could and possibly would be subjected to extreme treatment, he says, and notes that a violation of the Geneva Conventions would only occur if the interrogator’s conduct “shocks the conscience” because it is out of proportion to “the government interest involved.” He continued, “The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act.” Furthermore, any action defined as an “outrage upon personal dignity” must be deliberate and involve an “intent to humiliate and degrade.”
Government Arguments 'Appalling,' Says Senator - A spokeswoman for Wyden, Jennifer Hoelzer, says that the administration’s contention that the Geneva Conventions can be selectively applied is “stunning.” Hoelzer says: “The Geneva Convention in most cases is the only shield that Americans have when they are captured overseas. And for the president to say that it is acceptable to interpret Geneva on a sliding scale means that he thinks that it is acceptable for other countries to do the same. Senator Wyden—and I believe any other reasonable individual—finds that argument appalling.” Law professor Scott Silliman, who teaches national security law at Duke University, agrees with Wyden’s assessments. He notes, “What they are saying is that if my intent is to defend the United States rather than to humiliate you, than I have not committed an offense.” An anonymous Justice Department official disagrees. “I certainly don’t want to suggest that if there’s a good purpose you can head off and humiliate and degrade someone. The fact that you are doing something for a legitimate security purpose would be relevant, but there are things that a reasonable observer would deem to be outrageous.” However, he adds, “there are certainly things that can be insulting that would not raise to the level of an outrage on personal dignity.” Wyden states that if the US is subjective in deciding what is and isn’t compliant under Geneva, then other countries will do the same to US prisoners in their custody. “The cumulative effect in my interpretation is to put American troops at risk,” he says. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008] He adds that the letters help make the case for a law that explicitly puts the CIA interrogations under the same restrictions as the military, or another set of clear standards. [Wall Street Journal, 4/27/2008]
'Full Compliance' - The CIA refuses to comment on Benczkowski’s memo, but spokesman Mark Mansfield says the CIA’s detainee program “has been and continues to be in full compliance with the laws of our country.” He adds, “The program has disrupted terrorist plots and has saved lives.” [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Mark Mansfield, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, Ron Wyden, Senate Intelligence Committee, Jennifer Hoelzer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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