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Context of 'December 25, 2005: National Security Expert Challenges Legal Basis for Domestic Surveillance Program'

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One of the approximately 30 radomes at the Echelon station in Menwith Hill, England. A radome covers an antenna to protect it from the weather and disguise the direction it is pointing.One of the approximately 30 radomes at the Echelon station in Menwith Hill, England. A radome covers an antenna to protect it from the weather and disguise the direction it is pointing. [Source: Matt Crypto / Public domain]The BBC reports on advances in electronic surveillance. The US’s global surveillance program, Echelon, has become particularly effective in monitoring mobile phones, recording millions of calls simultaneously and checking them against a powerful search engine designed to pick out key words that might represent a security threat. Laser microphones can pick up conversations from up to a kilometer away by monitoring window vibrations. If a bug is attached to a computer keyboard, it is possible to monitor exactly what is being keyed in, because every key on a computer has a unique sound when depressed. [BBC, 4/4/2001] Furthermore, a BBC report on a European Union committee investigation into Echelon one month later notes that the surveillance network can sift through up to 90 percent of all Internet traffic, as well as monitor phone conversations, mobile phone calls, fax transmissions, net browsing history, satellite transmissions and so on. Even encryption may not help much. The BBC suggests that “it is likely that the intelligence agencies can crack open most commercially available encryption software.” [BBC, 5/29/2001]

Entity Tags: Echelon, British Broadcasting Corporation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 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

Yaser Esam Hamdi.Yaser Esam Hamdi. [Source: Associated Press]In the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi v. Donald Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court rules 8-1 that, contrary to the government’s position, Hamdi (see December 2001), as a US citizen held inside the US, cannot be held indefinitely and incommunicado without an opportunity to challenge his detention. It rules he has the right to be given the opportunity to challenge the basis for his detention before an impartial court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes for the majority: “It would turn our system of checks and balances on its head to suggest that a citizen could not make his way to court with a challenge to the factual basis for his detention by his government, simply because the Executive opposes making available such a challenge. Absent suspension of the writ by Congress, a citizen detained as an enemy combatant is entitled to this process.” Hamdi, on the other hand, apart from military interrogations and “screening processes,” has received no process. Due process, according to a majority of the Court, “demands some system for a citizen detainee to refute his classification [as enemy combatant].” A “citizen-detainee… must receive notice of the factual basis for his classification, and a fair opportunity to rebut the government’s factual assertions before a neutral decision-maker.” However, O’Connor writes, “an interrogation by one’s captor… hardly constitutes a constitutionally adequate factfinding before a neutral decisionmaker.”
Conservative Dissent: President Has Inherent Power to Detain Citizens during War - Only Justice Clarence Thomas affirms the government’s opinion, writing, “This detention falls squarely within the federal government’s war powers, and we lack the expertise and capacity to second-guess that decision.” [Supreme Court opinion on writ of certiorari. Shafiq Rasul, et al. v. George W. Bush, et al., 6/28/2004] Thomas adds: “The Founders intended that the president have primary responsibility—along with the necessary power—to protect the national security and to conduct the nation’s foreign relations. They did so principally because the structural advantages of a unitary executive are essential in these domains.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 105]
'A State of War Is Not a Blank Check for the President' - The authority to hold Hamdi and other such US citizens captured on enemy battlefields derives from Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001). Justice Antonin Scalia dissents from this portion of the majority ruling, saying that because Congress had not suspended habeas corpus, Hamdi should either be charged with a crime or released. The Court also finds that if Hamdi was indeed a missionary and not a terrorist, as both he and his father claim, then he must be freed. While the Court does not grant Hamdi the right to a full criminal trial, it grants him the right to a hearing before a “neutral decision-maker” to challenge his detention. O’Connor writes: “It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in these times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.… We have long made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”
Affirms President's Right to Hold US Citizens Indefinitely - Although the media presents the ruling as an unmitigated defeat for the Bush administration, it is actually far more mixed. The White House is fairly pleased with the decision, insamuch as Hamdi still has no access to civilian courts; the administration decides that Hamdi’s “neutral decision-maker” will be a panel of military officers. Hamdi will not have a lawyer, nor will he have the right to see the evidence against him if it is classified. This is enough to satisfy the Court’s ruling, the White House decides. In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “[T]he administration’s legal team noted with quiet satisfaction that, so long as some kind of minimal hearing was involved, the Supreme Court had just signed off on giving presidents the wartime power to hold a US citizen without charges or a trial—forever.” The Justice Department says of the ruling that it is “pleased that the [Court] today upheld the authority of the president as commander in chief of the armed forces to detain enemy combatants, including US citizens.… This power, which was contested by lawyers representing individuals captured in the War on Terror, is one of the most essential authorities the US Constitution grants the president to defend America from our enemies.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 193-194]

Entity Tags: Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Donald Rumsfeld, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Clarence Thomas, Charlie Savage

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

Suzanne Spaulding, a former counsel for the CIA, the Senate and House intelligence commission, and executive director of the National Terrorism Commission from 1999 through 2000, writes an op-ed criticizing the Bush administration for its domestic surveillance program. She writes that the three main sources of oversight and restraint on Bush’s unfettered efforts to monitor US citizens—Congress, the judiciary, and the American people—have failed to halt what she calls “this extraordinary exercise of presidential power.” Spaulding, who will testify along similar lines before the Senate over a year later (see April 11, 2007), writes, “Ironically, if it is ultimately determined that this domestic surveillance program reflects the exercise of unchecked power in contravention of law, it will wind up weakening the presidency. Once again, we will confront the challenge of restoring Americans’ faith in the rule of law and our system of checks and balances.” The pretense of oversight by the administration, in providing limited and perhaps misleading briefings on the program only to the so-called “Gang of Eight” Congressional leaders, is superficial and ineffective, she writes; the entire process “effectively eliminates the possibility of any careful oversight.” She notes that because of the severe restrictions both in the information doled out to these Congressional leaders, and their strict prohibition on discussing the information with anyone else, even other intelligence panel members, “[i]t is virtually impossible for individual members of Congress, particularly members of the minority party, to take any effective action if they have concerns about what they have heard in one of these briefings. It is not realistic to expect them, working alone, to sort through complex legal issues, conduct the kind of factual investigation required for true oversight and develop an appropriate legislative response.” Congressional oversight is key to retaining the trust of the US citizenry, she writes, and adds that that particular principle was well understood at the CIA while she was there. Oversight “is vital for a secret agency operating in a democracy. True oversight helps clarify the authority under which intelligence professionals operate. And when risky operations are revealed, it is important to have members of Congress reassure the public that they have been overseeing the operation. The briefings reportedly provided on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program reflect, instead, a ‘check the box’ mentality—allowing administration officials to claim that they had informed Congress without having really achieved the objectives of oversight.” While those few members of Congress are given little real information, the judiciary, particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), is cut out of the process entirely. “Instead of going to a judge on the secret court that was specifically established to authorize foreign intelligence surveillance inside the United States, we are told that an NSA shift supervisor was able to sign off on the warrantless surveillance of Americans,” she writes. “That’s neither a check nor a balance. The primary duty of the NSA shift supervisor, who essentially works for the president, is to collect intelligence. The task of the judge is to ensure that the legal standards set out in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have been met. Which one has stronger independence to say no, if no needs to be said? The objectives of the surveillance program, as described in news reports, seem laudable. The government should be running to ground the contacts listed in a suspected terrorist’s cell phone, for example. What is troubling is that this domestic spying is being done in apparent contravention of FISA, for reasons that still are not clear.” In her piece she takes issue with the Bush administration’s insistence that its surveillance program is legal and necessary. She makes the following case:
Specious Arguments to Duck FISA Court - The argument that the FISA Court is too slow to respond to immediate needs for domestic surveillance is specious, she says. “FISA anticipates situations in which speed is essential. It allows the government to start eavesdropping without a court order and to keep it going for a maximum of three days. And while the FISA application process is often burdensome in routine cases, it can also move with remarkable speed when necessary, with applications written and approved in just a few hours.” Instead, she says that the Bush administration must have dodged FISC because their wiretaps didn’t meet FISA standards of probable cause. Since FISC is staffed by judges hand-picked by conservative then-Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, “who presumably felt that they had the right temperament and expertise to understand the national security imperatives as well as the need to protect civil liberties,” and since FISC has granted all but four of the more than 5,645 requests for wiretaps and surveillance made by the administration since 2001, to argue that FISC is unresponsive is simply wrong-headed. And, she notes, if the administration felt that FISA’s standards were too strict, it could have moved to amend the law to allow more leniency in obtaining such warrants. It has not done so since the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act. She writes, “The administration reportedly did not think it could get an amendment without exposing details of the program. But this is not the first time the intelligence community has needed a change in the law to allow it to undertake sensitive intelligence activities that could not be disclosed. In the past, Congress and the administration have worked together to find a way to accomplish what was needed. It was never previously considered an option to simply decide that finding a legislative solution was too hard and that the executive branch could just ignore the law rather than fix it.”
No Justification for Keeping Program Secret - In addition, the administration has consistently failed to make a case for keeping the domestic wiretapping policy secret for four years. US-designated terrorist groups already know that the government listens to their cell phone conversations whenever possible, and they are well aware of the various publicly known programs to search through millions of electronic communications, such as the NSA’s Echelon program (see April 4, 2001). “So what do the terrorists learn from a general public discussion about the legal authority being relied upon to target their conversations?” she asks. “Presumably very little. What does the American public lose by not having the public discussion? We lose the opportunity to hold our elected leaders accountable for what they do on our behalf.”
Assertions that Program Authorized by Congress Fallacious - The argument advanced by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that says the program does not violate the law because Congress’s post-9/11 authorization of force against terrorists gives the administration the right to circumvent FISA is equally specious, she argues. “FISA does provide for criminal penalties if surveillance is conducted under color of law ‘except as authorized by statute.’ This is a reference to either FISA or the criminal wiretap statute. A resolution, such as the Use of Force resolution, does not provide statutory authority. Moreover, FISA specifically provides for warrantless surveillance for up to 15 days after a declaration of war. Why would Congress include that provision if a mere Use of Force resolution could render FISA inapplicable? The law clearly states that the criminal wiretap statute and FISA are ‘the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance…and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted.’ If these authorities are exclusive, there is no other legal authority that can authorize warrantless surveillance. Courts generally will not view such a clear statutory statement as having been overruled by a later congressional action unless there is an equally clear indication that Congress intended to do that.” Therefore, by any legal standard, the administration’s program is, apparently, illegal.
No Inherent Presidential Authority - The ultimate argument by Bush officials, that the president has some sort of inherent authority as commander-in-chief to authorize illegal wiretaps, is the same groundless legal argument recently used to justify the use of torture by US intelligence and law enforcement agents (see December 28, 2001). That argument was withdrawn, Spaulding notes, after it became publicly known. While the courts have not specifically ruled on this particular argument, Spaulding notes that the Supreme Court refused to recognize then-President Harry Truman’s attempt to seize control of the nation’s steel mills to avert a possible strike during the Korean War. The Supreme Court ruled “that the president’s inherent authority is at its weakest in areas where Congress has already legislated. It ruled that to find inherent presidential authority when Congress has explicitly withheld that authority—as it has in FISA—‘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 president and Congress.’” She notes that in 2004, the Supreme Court rejected the argument for unchecked presidential power in the Hamdi case (see June 28, 2004), with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writing for the court, “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens. …Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with… enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.” Spaulding concludes, “The rule of law and our system of checks and balances are not a source of weakness or a luxury of peace. As O’Connor reminded us in Hamdi, ‘It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments…that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.’” [Washington Post, 12/25/2005]

Entity Tags: Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, USA Patriot Act, Suzanne Spaulding, National Security Agency, US Supreme Court, Harry S. Truman, Alberto R. Gonzales, “Gang of Eight”, National Commission on Terrorism, Central Intelligence Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Echelon, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Retired AT&T technician and incipient whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009) issues his first press release, summarizing his knowledge of AT&T’s complicity with the National Security Agency (NSA) in that agency’s illegal domestic wiretapping program (see December 31, 2005). Klein has given documentation supporting his claims to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in support of that organization’s lawsuit against AT&T (see January 31, 2006). Klein’s press release tells of the NSA’s “secret room” in AT&T’s Folsom Street, San Francisco, facility (see January 2003) and reveals for the first time the NSA’s use of the Narus STA 6400 to comb through the wiretapped data (see January 16, 2004). The release reads in part: “Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet—whether that be people’s email, Web surfing, or any other data. Given the public debate about the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s spying on US citizens without obtaining a FISA warrant (see December 18, 2005, December 20, 2005, December 21, 2005, December 21, 2005, December 25, 2005, January 5, 2006, January 10, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 18, 2006, and January 31, 2006), I think it is critical that this information be brought out into the open, and that the American people be told the truth about the extent of the administration’s warrantless surveillance practices, particularly as it relates to the Internet. Despite what we are hearing (see December 19, 2005, December 19, 2005, December 21-22, 2005, and January 19, 2006), and considering the public track record of this administration (see December 24, 2005, Early 2006, January 23, 2006, January 25-26, 2006, and February 2, 2006), I simply do not believe their claims that the NSA’s spying program is really limited to foreign communications or otherwise consistent with the NSA’s charter or with FISA. And unlike the controversy over targeted wiretaps of individuals’ phone calls, this potential spying appears to be applied wholesale to all sorts of Internet communications of countless citizens.” Klein issues the press release in part to give himself some publicity, and the protection from government harassment such publicity might entail (see February 11, 2006 and After). [Wired News, 4/7/2006; Wired News, 4/7/2006; Klein, 2009, pp. 66-67]

Entity Tags: Electronic Frontier Foundation, AT&T, Bush administration (43), National Security Agency, Mark Klein

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Suzanne Spaulding.Suzanne Spaulding. [Source: Bipartisan Security Group]Suzanne Spaulding, a national security expert with twenty years of experience in the CIA, on various Congressional oversight committees, and executive director of two separate commissions on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of that body’s hearings on the improper use of National Security Letters (NSLs) by the FBI (see October 25, 2005). Spaulding has spoken out before against the NSA’s wiretapping program (see December 25, 2005). She says that the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence agents need “the tools they need to do their job” and “clear guidance on just what it is that we want them to do on our behalf—and how we want them to do it. Clear rules and careful oversight provide essential protections for those on the front lines of our domestic counterterrorism efforts.” However, Spaulding testifies, “it appears both were lacking in the implementation of national security letter authorities.” Spaulding says that Congress should begin a much larger examination of domestic surveillance issues, saying, “The appropriateness of using FISA electronic surveillance to eavesdrop on Americans should be considered in light of other, less intrusive techniques that might be available to establish whether a phone number belongs to a suspected terrorist or the pizza delivery shop. It’s not the ‘all or nothing’ proposition often portrayed in some of the debates.” However, according to recent findings by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Glenn A. Fine, “there is not sufficient guidance on how to apply that in the NSL context or in conjunction with other available collection techniques.” Therefore, there is a strong “need for a broader examination of domestic intelligence tools.”
Urges Congressional Review - Spaulding urges Congress “to undertake a comprehensive review of all domestic intelligence collection, not just by FBI but also by the other national security agencies engaged in domestic intelligence collection, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency. A Joint Inquiry or Task Force could be established by the Senate leadership, with representation from the most relevant committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Armed Services, and Homeland Security and Government Affairs), to carefully examine the nature of the threat inside the US and the most effective strategies for countering it. Then Congress, and the American public, can consider whether we have the appropriate institutional and legal framework for implementing those strategies with adequate safeguards and oversight.”
FBI's Expanded Powers Need Review - In addition, she testifies, the FBI’s expanded ability to use NSLs under the Patriot Act must be examined. Currently, the law seems to allow the FBI to use NSLs to obtain evidence pursuant to a FISA warrant, thus allowing “the government to get information about individuals who are not themselves the subject of an investigation”—“parties two or three steps removed from their subjects without determining if these contacts reveal suspicious connections,” Fine reported. Spaulding expands on Fine’s findings: “In fact, the most tenuous of connections would seem to suffice for this NSL standard. For example, it’s not clear why an ‘investigation to protect against international terrorism’ couldn’t justify demanding information about all residents of, say, Dearborn, Michigan [home to a large Arab-American community], so that you could run them through some logarithmic profile to identify ‘suspicious’ individuals. In fact, Congress should examine the facts surrounding the nine NSLs in one investigation that were, according to the IG Report, used to obtain information regarding over 11,000 different phone numbers.”
Data Mining Efforts Should Be Examined - Also, she says, data mining efforts by other law enforcement and intelligence agencies should be carefully examined and addressed: “NSLs should not become a mechanism for gathering vast amounts of information about individuals with no known connection to international terrorism for purposes of data mining.” Spaulding also notes that the Patriot Act allows FBI special agents in charge (SACs) to issue NSLs; instead, she says, only attorneys in the Justice Department’s National Security Division should be able to issue NSLs. Yet another problem Spaulding notes is the FBI’s policy of retention of data gathered on US citizens through NSLs, even when those citizens have no connection to terrorist activities. Spaulding expressed similar concerns in a previous op-ed for the Washington Post (see December 25, 2005). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, US Department of Defense, USA Patriot Act, Senate Judiciary Committee, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Suzanne Spaulding, National Security Letters, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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