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Context of 'December 21, 2001: Justice Department Issues Secret Memo Regarding Applicability of Uniform Code of Military Justice During ‘Undeclared War’'

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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).

Entity Tags: Federalist Society, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

John Yoo, an associate law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, makes a presentation at a Cato Institute seminar on executive power. Yoo, who will go on to become one of the Bush administration’s primary advocates of unchecked executive power (see March 1996), accuses the Clinton administration of upending the Constitution to give the executive branch unwarranted authority (see March 24 - Mid-June, 1999). “[T]he Clinton administration has undermined the balance of powers that exist in foreign affairs, and [they] have undermined principles of democratic accountability that executive branches have agreed upon well to the Nixon administration,” he says. Regarding the Clinton administration’s stretched interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see June 2000), Yoo says that the Clinton “legal arguments are so outrageous, they’re so incredible, that they actually show, I think, a disrespect for the idea of law, by showing how utterly manipulatible it is.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 67]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), John C. Yoo, Nixon administration, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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

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

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a legal opinion that says the US can conduct electronic surveillance against its citizens without probable cause or warrants. According to the memo, the opinion was drafted in response to questions about whether it would be constitutional to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to state that searches may be approved when foreign intelligence collection is “a purpose” of the search, rather than “the purpose.” Yoo finds this would be constitutional, but goes further. He asserts that FISA is potentially in conflict with the Constitution, stating, “FISA itself is not required by the Constitution, nor is it necessarily the case that its current standards match exactly to Fourth Amendment standards.” Citing Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, in which the Supreme Court found that warrantless searches of students were permissible, Yoo argues that “reasonableness” and “special needs” are also the standards according to which warrantless monitoring of the private communications of US persons is permissible. According to Yoo, the Fourth Amendment requirement for probable cause and warrants prior to conducting a search pertain primarily to criminal investigations, and in any case cannot be construed to restrict presidential responsibility and authority concerning national security. Yoo further argues that in the context of the post-9/11 world, with the threat posed by terrorism and the military nature of the fight against terrorism, warrantless monitoring of communications is reasonable. Some information indicates the NSA began a broad program involving domestic surveillance prior to the 9/11 attacks, which contradicts the claim that the program began after, and in response to, the attacks (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, and July 2001). [US Department of Justice, 9/25/2001 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009; Inspectors General, 7/10/2009]
Yoo Memo Used to Support Legality of Warrantless Surveillance - Yoo’s memo will be cited to justify the legality of the warrantless domestic surveillance program authorized by President Bush in October 2001 (see October 4, 2001). NSA Director General Michael Hayden, in public remarks on January 23, 2006, will refer to a presidential authorization for monitoring domestic calls having been given prior to “early October 2001.” Hayden will also say, “The lawfulness of the actual authorization was reviewed by lawyers at the Department of Justice and the White House and was approved by the attorney general.” The various post-9/11 NSA surveillance activities authorized by Bush will come to be referred to as the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP), and the first memo directly supporting the program’s legality will be issued by Yoo on November 2, 2001, after the program has been initiated (see November 2, 2001). Many constitutional authorities will reject Yoo’s legal rationale. [Michael Hayden, 1/23/2006]
Yoo Memo Kept Secret from Bush Officials Who Might Object - According to a report by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker in the Washington Post, the memo’s “authors kept it secret from officials who were likely to object,” including ranking White House national security counsel John Bellinger, who reports to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Bellinger’s deputy, Bryan Cunningham, will tell the Post that Bellinger would have recommended having the program vetted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees surveillance under FISA. Gellman and Becker quote a “senior government lawyer” as saying that Vice President Dick Cheney’s attorney, David Addington, had “open contempt” for Bellinger, and write that “more than once he accused Bellinger, to his face, of selling out presidential authority for good ‘public relations’ or bureaucratic consensus.” [Washington Post, 6/24/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, John Bellinger, National Security Agency, Bryan Cunningham, Condoleezza Rice, David S. Addington, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo, George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department’s John Yoo, an official in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a secret opinion regarding legal statutes governing the use of certain interrogation techniques. The opinion will not be made public; its existence will not be revealed until October 18, 2007, when future OLC head Steven Bradbury will note its existence as part of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit. [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, John C. Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Steven Bradbury

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department’s John Yoo and Robert Delahunty issue a memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales claiming President Bush has sweeping powers in wartime that essentially void large portions of the Constitution. The memo, which says that Bush can order military operations inside the US (see October 23, 2001), also says that Bush can suspend First Amendment freedoms: “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully.” It adds that “the current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically.” [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, George W. Bush, Robert J. Delahunty, US Department of Justice, Alberto R. Gonzales

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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

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

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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

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

John Yoo and Robert Delahunty of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) write a classified memo to John Bellinger, the senior legal counsel to the National Security Council. Yoo and Delahunty claim that President Bush has the unilateral authority to “suspend certain articles” of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the US and Russia (see May 26, 1972). Six months later, President Bush will withdraw the US from the treaty (see December 13, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/15/2001 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] The memo will not be released until two months after the Bush administration leaves the White House (see March 2, 2009).

Entity Tags: National Security Council, John Bellinger, John C. Yoo, US Department of Justice, Robert J. Delahunty, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, an official with the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a classified memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The contents of the memo will remain secret, but its existence will be revealed in a June 2007 deposition filed in the course of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit. The memo is known to cover the War Crimes Act, the Hague Convention, the Geneva Conventions, the federal criminal code, and detainee treatment. [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] It is co-authored by OLC special counsel Robert Delahunty. [ProPublica, 4/16/2009]

Entity Tags: Robert J. Delahunty, American Civil Liberties Union, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department’s John Yoo sends a classified memo to the Defense Department’s general counsel, William Haynes. The contents will not be made public, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will eventually learn that the memo concerns possible criminal charges to be brought against an American citizen who is suspected of being a member of either al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The ACLU believes the memo discusses the laws mandating that US military personnel must adhere to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and how those laws may not apply to military personnel during a so-called “undeclared war.” [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Deputy Assistant Attorney Generals Patrick Philbin and John Yoo send a memorandum to Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes offering the legal opinion that US courts do not have jurisdiction to review the detention of foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Therefore detentions of persons there cannot be challenged in a US court of law. The memo is endorsed by the Department of Defense and White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales. [Newsweek, 5/24/2004] The memo addresses “the question whether a federal district court would properly have jurisdiction to entertain a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of an alien detained at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” The conclusion of Philbin and Yoo is that it cannot, based primarily on their interpretation of a decision by the US Supreme Court in the 1950 Eisentrager case, in which the Supreme Court determined that no habeas petition should be honored if the prisoners concerned are seized, tried, and held in territory that is outside of the sovereignty of the US and outside the territorial jurisdiction of any court of the US. Both conditions apply to Guantanamo according to Philbin and Yoo. Approvingly, they quote the US Attorney General in 1929, who stated that Guantanamo is “a mere governmental outpost beyond our borders.” A number of cases, quoted by the authors, “demonstrate that the United States has consistently taken the position that [Guantanamo Bay] remains foreign territory, not subject to US sovereignty.” Guantanamo is indeed land leased from the state of Cuba, and therefore in terms of legal possession and formal sovereignty still part of Cuba. But Philbin and Yoo acknowledge a problem with the other condition: namely that the territory is outside the US’s jurisdiction. They claim with certainty that Guantanamo “is also outside the ‘territorial jurisdiction of any court of the United States.’” However, the Supreme Court should not have made a distinction between jurisdiction and sovereignty here; the wording of the decision is really, Philbin and Yoo believe, an inaccurate reflection of its intent: “an arguable imprecision in the Supreme Court’s language.” For that reason, they call for caution. “A non-frivolous argument might be constructed, however, that [Guantanamo Bay], while not be part of sovereign territory of the United States, is within the territorial jurisdiction of a federal court.” [US Department of Justice, 12/28/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Alberto R. Gonzales, Patrick F. Philbin, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a neoconservative lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel serving as deputy assistant attorney general, writes a classified memo to senior Pentagon counsel William J. Haynes, titled “Application of Treaties and Law to al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” [New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Yoo: Geneva Conventions Do Not Apply in War on Terror - Yoo’s memo, written in conjunction with fellow Justice Department lawyer Robert Delahunty, echoes arguments by another Justice Department lawyer, Patrick Philbin, two months earlier (see November 6, 2001). Yoo states that, in his view, the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, do not apply to captured Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners, nor do they apply to the military commissions set up to try such prisoners.
Geneva Superseded by Presidential Authority - Yoo’s memo goes even farther, arguing that no international laws apply to the US whatsoever, because they do not have any status under US federal law. “As a result,” Yoo and Delahunty write, “any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter, the president or the US armed forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” In essence, Yoo and Delahunty argue that President Bush and the US military have carte blanche to conduct the global war on terrorism in any manner they see fit, without the restrictions of law or treaty. However, the memo says that while the US need not follow the rules of war, it can and should prosecute al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees for violating those same laws—a legal double standard that provokes sharp criticism when the memo comes to light in May 2004 (see May 21, 2004). Yoo and Delahunty write that while this double standard may seem “at first glance, counter-intuitive,” such expansive legal powers are a product of the president’s constitutional authority “to prosecute the war effectively.” The memo continues, “Restricting the president’s plenary power over military operations (including the treatment of prisoners)” would be “constitutionally dubious.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002; US Department of Justice, 6/9/2002 pdf file; Newsweek, 5/21/2004; New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Overriding International Legal Concerns - Yoo warns in the memo that international law experts may not accept his reasoning, as there is no legal precedent giving any country the right to unilaterally ignore its commitment to Geneva or any other such treaty, but Yoo writes that Bush, by invoking “the president’s commander in chief and chief executive powers to prosecute the war effectively,” can simply override any objections. “Importing customary international law notions concerning armed conflict would represent a direct infringement on the president’s discretion as commander in chief and chief executive to determine how best to conduct the nation’s military affairs.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 146] The essence of Yoo’s argument, a Bush official later says, is that the law “applies to them, but it doesn’t apply to us.” [Newsweek, 5/21/2004] Navy general counsel Alberto Mora later says of the memo that it “espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the president’s commander-in-chief authority.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 181]
White House Approval - White House counsel and future Attorney General Alberto Gonzales agrees (see January 25, 2002), saying, “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002]
Spark for Prisoner Abuses - Many observers believe that Yoo’s memo is the spark for the torture and prisoner abuses later reported from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (see Evening November 7, 2003), Guantanamo Bay (see December 28, 2001), and other clandestine prisoner detention centers (see March 2, 2007). The rationale is that since Afghanistan is what Yoo considers a “failed state,” with no recognizable sovereignity, its militias do not have any status under any international treaties. [Newsweek, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]
Resistance from Inside, Outside Government - Within days, the State Department will vehemently protest the memo, but to no practical effect (see January 25, 2002).

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Robert J. Delahunty, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Taliban, John C. Yoo, Colin Powell, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush, Alberto Mora, US Department of State, Alberto R. Gonzales, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyer John Yoo sends a classified memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The contents of the memo will remain secret, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will later learn that the memo is about the Geneva Conventions. [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Alberto R. Gonzales, American Civil Liberties Union, John C. Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Robert Delahunty send a classified memo to the chief legal adviser for the State Department, William Howard Taft IV. The contents of the memo will remain secret, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will later learn that the memo concerns the Justice Department’s interpretation of the War Crimes Act. According to Yoo and Delahunty, the War Crimes Act does not allow the prosecution of accused al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. Yoo will cite this memo in a 2003 memo concerning the military interrogation of so-called enemy combatants (see March 14, 2003). [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), American Civil Liberties Union, John C. Yoo, William Howard Taft IV, US Department of Justice, War Crimes Act, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jay Bybee, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), and OLC lawyer John Yoo send a memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Defense Department chief counsel William Haynes. Known as the “Treaties and Laws Memorandum,” the document addresses the treatment of detainees captured in Afghanistan, and their eventual incarceration at Guantanamo and possible trial by military commissions. The memo asserts that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to al-Qaeda detainees, and the president has the authority to deny Taliban members POW status. The document goes on to assert that the president is not bound by international laws such as the Geneva Conventions because they are neither treaties nor federal laws. [US Department of Justice, 1/22/2002 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties, War in Afghanistan

John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), sends a classified memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The contents of the memo will remain secret, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will later learn that the memo is about the Geneva Conventions and is applicable to prisoners of war. Yoo’s boss, OLC head Jay Bybee, sends another secret memo about the Geneva Conventions to Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson. [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Jay S. Bybee, American Civil Liberties Union, Geneva Conventions, US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Larry D. Thompson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jay Bybee, the chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a classified memo to William Howard Taft IV, the chief counsel of the State Department, titled “The President’s Power as Commander in Chief to Transfer Captive Terrorists to the Control and Custody of Foreign Nations.” The memo, actually written by Bybee’s deputy John Yoo, says Congress has no authority to block the president’s power to unilaterally transfer detainees in US custody to other countries. In essence, the memo grants President Bush the power to “rendition” terror suspects to countries without regard to the law or to Congressional legislation, as long as there is no explicit agreement between the US and the other nations to torture the detainees. [US Department of Justice, 3/12/2002 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 148; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; New York Times, 3/2/2009] The memo directly contradicts the 1988 Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994), which specifically forbids the transfer of prisoners in the custody of a signatory country to a nation which practices torture. Once the treaty was ratified by Congress in 1994, it became binding law. But Yoo and Bybee argue that the president has the authority as commander in chief to ignore treaties and laws that supposedly interfere with his power to conduct wartime activities. [Savage, 2007, pp. 148-149] In 2009, when the memos are made public (see March 2, 2009), Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch says she is shocked at the memo: “That is [the Office of Legal Counsel] telling people how to get away with sending someone to a nation to be tortured. The idea that the legal counsel’s office would be essentially telling the president how to violate the law is completely contrary to the purpose and the role of what a legal adviser is supposed to do.” [Washington Post, 3/3/2009]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin sends a classified memo to Daniel Bryant, a lawyer with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, concerning the “Swift Justice Authorization Act.” The memo states that Congress has no power to interfere with President Bush’s authority to act as commander in chief to control US actions during wartime, including Bush’s authority to promulgate military commissions to try and sentence suspected terrorists and other detainees taken by the US as part of its “war on terror.” Philbin’s colleague, OLC lawyer John Yoo, will cite this memo in his 2003 memo concerning the military interrogation of so-called enemy combatants (see March 14, 2003). [US Department of Justice, 4/8/2002 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] The memo will be made public in early 2009 (see March 2, 2009).

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Patrick F. Philbin, US Department of Justice, Daniel Bryant, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a lawyer with the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), sends a classified memo to Daniel J. Bryant, another OLC lawyer. Yoo concludes that the Constitution “vests full control of the military operations of the United States to the president,” and denies Congress any role in overseeing or influencing such operations. The memo is consisent with an earlier Justice Department memo (see April 8, 2002). Yoo will cite this memo in his 2003 memo concerning the military interrogation of so-called enemy combatants (see March 14, 2003). [US Department of Justice`, 6/27/2002 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] The memo ignores the Non-Detention Act, which states, “No citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an act of Congress.” [ProPublica, 4/16/2009] It will be made public in early 2009 (see March 2, 2009).

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Daniel Bryant, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a lawyer with the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), sends a classified memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The memo’s contents will remain secret, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will learn that the memo regards the 1984 Convention Against Torture. According to the memo, the first fifteen articles of the Convention, ratified by the United States almost a decade before, “are non-self executing and place no affirmative obligations on the executive branch.” Furthermore, international law in general “lacks domestic legal effect, and in any event can be overridden by the president,” the memo states. In essence, Yoo concludes that the Convention can be ignored by the president. Yoo will cite this memo in his 2003 memo concerning the military interrogation of so-called enemy combatants (see March 14, 2003). [United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 12/10/1984; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file; ProPublica, 4/16/2009]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Alberto R. Gonzales, American Civil Liberties Union, Convention Against Torture, Bush administration (43), US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), signs off on a secret opinion that approves a long, disturbing list of harsh interrogation techniques proposed by the CIA. The list includes waterboarding, a form of near-drowning that some consider mock execution, and which has been prosecuted as a war crime in the US since at least 1901. The list only forbids one proposed technique: burying a prisoner alive (see February 4-5, 2004). Yoo concludes that such harsh tactics do not fall under the 1984 Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994 and July 22, 2002) because they will not be employed with “specific intent” to torture. Also, the methods do not fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because “a state cannot be bound by treaties to which it has not consented”; also, since the interrogations do not constitute a “widespread and systematic” attack on civilian populations, and since neither Taliban nor al-Qaeda detainees are considered prisoners of war (see February 7, 2002), the ICC has no purview. The same day that Yoo sends his memo, Yoo’s boss, OLC chief Jay Bybee, sends a classified memo to the CIA regarding the interrogation of al-Qaeda members and including information detailing “potential interrogation methods and the context in which their use was contemplated” (see August 1, 2002). [US Department of Justice, 8/1/2002; Washington Post, 6/25/2007; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] Yoo will later claim that he warns White House lawyers, as well as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that it would be dangerous to allow military interrogators to use the harshest interrogation techniques, because the military might overuse the techniques or exceed the limitations. “I always thought that only the CIA should do this, but people at the White House and at [the Defense Department] felt differently,” Yoo will later say. Yoo’s words are prophetic: such excessively harsh techniques will be used by military interrogators at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Convention Against Torture, Donald Rumsfeld, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)‘s John Yoo sends a classified memo to Attorney General John Ashcroft. The contents of the memo remain secret, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will later learn that the memo’s subject is the legality of certain communications intelligence activities. [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, John Ashcroft, John C. Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department sends a legal memorandum to the Pentagon that claims federal laws prohibiting torture, assault, maiming, and other crimes do not apply to military interrogators questioning al-Qaeda captives because the president’s authority as commander in chief overrides the law. The 81-page memo, written by the Office of Legal Counsel’s John Yoo, is not publicly revealed for over five years (see April 1, 2008).
President Can Order Maiming, Disfigurement of Prisoners - Yoo writes that infractions such as slapping, shoving, and poking detainees do not warrant criminal liability. Yoo goes even farther, saying that the use of mind-altering drugs can be used on detainees as long as they do not produce “an extreme effect” calculated to “cause a profound disruption of the senses or personality.” [John C. Yoo, 3/14/2003 pdf file; Washington Post, 4/2/2008] Yoo asks if the president can order a prisoner’s eyes poked out, or if the president could order “scalding water, corrosive acid or caustic substance” thrown on a prisoner. Can the president have a prisoner disfigured by slitting an ear or nose? Can the president order a prisoner’s tongue torn out or a limb permanently disabled? All of these assaults are noted in a US law prohibiting maiming. Yoo decides that no such restrictions exist for the president in a time of war; that law does not apply if the president deems it inapplicable. The memo contains numerous other discussions of various harsh and tortuous techniques, all parsed in dry legal terms. Those tactics are all permissible, Yoo writes, unless they result in “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions.” Some of the techniques are proscribed by the Geneva Conventions, but Yoo writes that Geneva does not apply to detainees captured and accused of terrorism. [Washington Post, 4/6/2008]
'National Self-Defense' - Yoo asserts that the president’s powers as commander in chief supersede almost all other laws, even Constitutional provisions. “If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network,” Yoo writes. “In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.… Even if an interrogation method arguably were to violate a criminal statute, the Justice Department could not bring a prosecution because the statute would be unconstitutional as applied in this context.” Interrogators who harmed a prisoner are protected by a “national and international version of the right to self-defense.” He notes that for conduct during interrogations to be illegal, that conduct must “shock the conscience,” an ill-defined rationale that will be used by Bush officials for years to justify the use of waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods. Yoo writes, “Whether conduct is conscience-shocking turns in part on whether it is without any justification,” explaining that that it would have to be inspired by malice or sadism before it could be prosecuted.
Memo Buttresses Administration's Justifications of Torture - The Justice Department will tell the Defense Department not to use the memo nine months later (see December 2003-June 2004), but Yoo’s reasoning will be used to provide a legal foundation for the Defense Department’s use of aggressive and potentially illegal interrogation tactics. The Yoo memo is a follow-up and expansion to a similar, though more narrow, August 2002 memo also written by Yoo (see August 1, 2002). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will suspend a list of aggressive interrogation techniques he had approved, in part because of Yoo’s memo, after an internal revolt by Justice Department and military lawyers (see February 6, 2003, Late 2003-2005 and December 2003-June 2004). However, in April 2003, a Pentagon working group will use Yoo’s memo to endorse the continued use of extreme tactics. [John C. Yoo, 3/14/2003 pdf file; Washington Post, 4/2/2008; New York Times, 4/2/2008]
Justice Department Claims Attorney General Knows Nothing of Memo - Yoo sends the memo to the Pentagon without the knowledge of Attorney General John Ashcroft or Ashcroft’s deputy, Larry Thompson, senior department officials will say in 2008. [Washington Post, 4/4/2008]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo, Larry D. Thompson, Al-Qaeda, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Geneva Conventions, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Attorney general nominee Alberto R. Gonzales, currently serving as chief White House counsel, tells the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings that there had been some discussion within the administration about trying to rewrite the Geneva Conventions. While he is committed to “ensuring that the United States government complies with all of its legal obligations as it fights the war on terror, whether those obligations arise from domestic or international law,” he says, “these obligations include, of course, honoring the Geneva Conventions wherever they apply.” However, he adds: “We are fighting a new type of enemy and a new type of war. Geneva was ratified in 1949… and I think it is appropriate to revisit whether or not Geneva should be revisited. Now I’m not suggesting that the principles of Geneva regarding basic treatment—basic decent treatment of human beings—should be revisited.… That should always be the basis on which we look at this. But I am aware there’s been some very preliminary discussion as to whether or not—is this something that we ought to look at.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/7/2005; Savage, 2007, pp. 209]
Questioned about Involvement in Torture - During the hearing, Gonzales is grilled on his involvement in the administration’s decision to allow aggressive interrogations of terrorism detainees. Critics believe the interrogation policy developed by Gonzales and his colleagues created the conditions that allowed abuses, such as those at Abu Ghraib, to occur. Senator Edward Kennedy tells Gonzales, “It appears that legal positions that you have supported have been used by the administration, the military, and the CIA to justify torture and Geneva Convention violations by military and civilian personnel.” [Associated Press, 1/6/2006] Retired Admiral John Hutson, a former Navy judge advocate general (JAG) who testifies as a witness at the hearing, says, “I believe that the prisoners’ abuses that we’ve seen… found their genesis in the decision to get cute with the Geneva convention.” [Reuters, 1/7/2005]
Lack of Understanding of International Law - At certain points during the hearing, Gonzales demonstrates an apparent lack of understanding about US and international law. When he is asked if he thinks other world leaders can legitimately torture US citizens, he answers, “I don’t know what laws other world leaders would be bound by.” On another occasion he is asked whether “US personnel [can] legally engage in torture under any circumstances,” to which he answers, “I don’t believe so, but I’d want to get back to you on that.” He is also asked whether he agrees with John Ashcroft’s judgment that torture should not be used because it produces nothing of value. Gonzales responds, “I don’t have a way of reaching a conclusion on that.” [Washington Post, 1/7/2005]

Entity Tags: John D. Hutson, John Ashcroft, Alberto R. Gonzales, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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]

Entity Tags: Senate Judiciary Committee, US Department of Justice, Harold Koh, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), John C. Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

John Yoo’s ‘The Powers of War and Peace.’John Yoo’s ‘The Powers of War and Peace.’ [Source: University of Maryland]Libertarian law professor Cass Sunstein reviews a recent book by former Bush legal adviser John Yoo, who authored several of the Bush administration’s most controversial legal opinions concerning terrorism and executive power (see September 21, 2001, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 4, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, November 2, 2001, November 6-10, 2001, November 15, 2001, November 20, 2001, December 21, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, January 11, 2002, January 14, 2002, January 22, 2002, January 24, 2002, January 24-26, 2002, March 13, 2002, April 8, 2002, June 27, 2002, July 22, 2002, August 1, 2002, August 1, 2002, and October 11, 2002). Yoo’s book, The Powers of War and Peace: The Constitution and Foreign Affairs After 9/11, is a compendium of his pre-9/11 academic writings that landed him his job at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Sunstein notes that Yoo, perhaps more than any other single legal scholar, has reshaped the government’s legal stance on any number of issues. He argued for the president’s unilateral ability to declare war without the approval of Congress, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorists, the withdrawal of essential civil liberties and legal rights from suspected terrorists and enemy collaborators, the right of the administration to electronically eavesdrop on the American citizenry without judicial consent or oversight, the ability to ignore or withdraw from international treaties without congressional approval, and more besides. Sunstein writes: “[T]aken as a whole, the claims of the Bush administration may be properly regarded as an effort to create a distinctive set of constitutional understandings for the post-September 11 era. The White House is attempting to create a kind of 9/11 Constitution. A defining feature of these understandings is a strong commitment to inherent presidential authority over national security, including a belief that in crucial domains the president can act without congressional permission, and indeed cannot be checked by congressional prohibitions.” Yoo is a key figure in that effort. Sunstein calls his work interesting but completely one-sided, simply ignoring “the mountainous counter-evidence” against most of his constitutional claims. “Yoo’s reading would require us to ignore far too many statements by prominent figures in the founding generation,” Sunstein writes. “There are not many issues on which James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Wilson, John Adams, and Pierce Butler can be said to agree. Were all of them wrong?” Sunstein concludes: “[W]ith respect to war, there is no reason for a 9/11 Constitution. The old one, read in the light of our traditions, will do just fine.” [New Republic, 1/9/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 81-82]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo, Cass Sunstein

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Salim Ahmed Hamdan in 1999.Salim Ahmed Hamdan in 1999. [Source: Pubic domain via the New York Times]In the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case, the Supreme Court rules 5-3 to strike down the Bush administration’s plans to try Guantanamo detainees before military commissions. Ruling in favor of detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan (see November 8, 2004), the Court rules that the commissions are unauthorized by federal statutes and violate international law. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens says, “The executive is bound to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction.” The opinion throws out each of the administration’s arguments in favor of the commissions, including its assertion that Congress had stripped the Supreme Court of the jurisdiction to decide the case. One of the major flaws in the commissions, the Court rules, is that President Bush unilaterally established them without the authorization of Congress. [New York Times, 6/30/2006] During the oral arguments three months before, Hamdan’s lawyer, Neal Katyal, told the Court: “The whole point of this [proceeding] is to say we’re challenging the lawfulness of the tribunal [the military commissions] itself. This isn’t a challenge to some decision that a court makes. This is a challenge to the court itself, and that’s why it’s different than the ordinary criminal context that you’re positing.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 274-275]
Major Defeat for Bush Administration - Civil libertarian and human rights organizations consider the ruling a shattering defeat for the administration, particularly in its assertions of expansive, unfettered presidential authority. Bush says in light of the decision, he will work with Congress to “find a way forward” to implement the commissions. “The ruling destroys one of the key pillars of the Guantanamo system,” says Gerald Staberock, a director of the International Commission of Jurists. “Guantanamo was built on the idea that prisoners there have limited rights. There is no longer that legal black hole.” The ruling also says that prisoners held as “enemy combatants” must be afforded rights under the Geneva Conventions, specifically those requiring humane treatment for detainees and the right to free and open trials in the US legal system. While some form of military trials may be permissible, the ruling states that defendants must be given basic rights such as the ability to attend the trial and the right to see and challenge evidence submitted by the prosecution. Stevens writes that the historical origin of military commissions was in their use as a “tribunal of necessity” under wartime conditions. “Exigency lent the commission its legitimacy, but did not further justify the wholesale jettisoning of procedural protections.” [New York Times, 6/30/2006] In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write, “Five justices on the Supreme Court said Bush had broken the law.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 275]
Hardline Conservative Justices Dissent - Stevens is joined by Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Anthony Kennedy issues a concurring opinion. Dissenting are Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Thomas, in a dissent signed by Scalia and Alito, calls the decision “untenable” and “dangerous.” Chief Justice John Roberts recused himself from the case because of his participation in a federal appeals court that ruled in favor of the administration (see November 8, 2004).
Not Charged for Three Years - Hamdan is a Guantanamo detainee from Yemen, captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and taken to Guantanamo in June 2002. He is accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, in his function as driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. He was not charged with a crime—conspiracy—until mid-2004. [New York Times, 6/30/2006]

Entity Tags: Samuel Alito, US Supreme Court, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John G. Roberts, Jr, Al-Qaeda, Antonin Scalia, Bush administration (43), Center for Constitutional Rights, Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, International Commission of Jurists, Gerald Staberock, Geneva Conventions, Clarence Thomas

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 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

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). [Wall Street Journal, 10/19/2006]

Entity Tags: Military Commissions Act, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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