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Context of 'January 4, 2006: Harman Says Briefings on NSA Wiretapping Program Do Not Meet Legal Standards'

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Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, tells President Bush that his administration’s practice of only briefing a select few Congressional leaders on highly classified programs violates the National Security Act of 1947. Harman is referring to Bush’s practice of briefing the so-called “Gang of Eight,” comprised of the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate, and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, about the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. Harman, a member of the Gang of Eight since 2003, says that she has found, she writes, “that the practice of briefing only certain Members of the intelligence committees violates the specific requirements of the National Security Act of 1947. The National Security Act requires that ‘The President shall ensure that the congressional intelligence committees are kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States….‘…The Act makes clear that the requirement to keep the committees informed may not be evaded on the grounds that ‘providing the information to the congressional intelligence committees would constitute the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.’” Harman notes that the one exception to the president’s duty to keep all committee members informed, covert action that entails “extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States” and thereby limits notification to the Gang of Eight, applies only “to covert actions, not intelligence collection activities.” Harman adds, “For all intelligence activities that are not covert actions, the Executive Branch’s duty is clear: the ‘heads of all…entities involved in intelligence activities shall…keep the congressional intelligence committees fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities.” Harman says that merely briefing the Gang of Eight does not provide “effective oversight,” especially in light of the restrictions on the lawmakers: “Members of the Gang of Eight cannot take notes, seek the advice of their counsel, or even discuss the issues raised with their committee colleagues.… As you know, both congressional intelligence committees are select committees, formed of Members who hold the highest security clearances and have a proven ability to safeguard classified information.” Harman concludes, “In my view, failure to provide briefings to the full congressional intelligence committees is a continuing violation of the National Security Act.” [US House of Representatives, 1/4/2006] Two weeks later, the Congressional Research Service will issue a report on the requirements of the Act agreeing with Harman’s conclusion (see January 18, 2006).

Entity Tags: Congressional Research Service, “Gang of Eight”, George W. Bush, House Intelligence Committee, National Security Agency, Jane Harman, Senate Intelligence Committee, National Security Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A memo from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) finds that President Bush appears to be in violation of the National Security Act of 1947 in his practice of briefing only select members of Congress on the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. Bush has provided only limited briefings to the so-called “Gang of Eight,” the four Congressional leaders and the four ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. But the 1947 law requires the US intelligence community to brief the full membership of both committees on the program. The memo is the result of a request by Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), who wrote Bush a letter saying that she believes he is required under the Act to brief both committees, and not just the Gang of Eight (see January 4, 2006). The White House claims that it has briefed Congressional leaders about the program over a dozen times, but refuses to provide details; the Congressional members so briefed are forbidden by law to discuss the content or nature of those classified briefings, even with their own staff members. “We believe that Congress was appropriately briefed,” says White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. The CRS agrees with Harman that the single exception to such full briefings under the law, covert actions taken under extraordinary threats to national security, is not applicable in this instance. Unless the White House contends the program is a covert action, the memo says, “limiting congressional notification of the NSA program to the Gang of Eight…would appear to be inconsistent with the law.” [US House of Representatives, 1/4/2006; Congressional Research Service, 1/18/2006 pdf file; Washington Post, 1/19/2006] The day after the CRS memo is released, Senate Democrats John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) and Harry Reid (D-NV), along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Harman, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, write to Vice President Dick Cheney demanding that the full committees be briefed on such intelligence matters in the future. [Washington Post, 1/20/2006] On February 9, Bush will allow Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former NSA chief Michael Hayden to brief the full House Intelligence Committee on the program (see February 8-17, 2006).

Entity Tags: Jane Harman, John D. Rockefeller, National Security Agency, National Security Act, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Michael Hayden, House Intelligence Committee, George W. Bush, Dana Perino, “Gang of Eight”, Alberto R. Gonzales, Harry Reid, Congressional Research Service, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department (DOJ) issues a 42-page “white paper” detailing its arguments that the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program (see February 2001, Spring 2001, After September 11, 2001, After September 11, 2001, October 2001, Early 2002, September 2002, Late 2003-Early 2004, April 19-20, 2004, June 9, 2005, June 9, 2005, December 15, 2005, December 17, 2005, December 19, 2005, December 24, 2005, January 5, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 23, 2006, and January 30, 2006) is legal. The DOJ reiterates two previous arguments (see December 19, 2005 and December 21-22, 2005)—that Congress implicitly authorized the program in 2001 when it authorized the Bush administration to begin military actions against al-Qaeda (see September 14-18, 2001), and that the president has the authority as commander in chief to conduct such a program—even though these arguments have been thoroughly refuted (see January 9, 2006) and overridden by the Supreme Court’s recent Hamdan v. Rumsfeld ruling (see December 15, 2005 and July 8, 2006). In its paper, the DOJ declares that if necessary, it will attack the legality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in order to stop that law from “imped[ing]” the president’s power to order domestic surveillance. In essence, according to columnist and civil liberties lawyer Glenn Greenwald, the DOJ is asserting that the president’s powers are limitless as long as he or she declares a given action necessary to battle terrorism. “Because the president has determined that the NSA activities are necessary to the defense of the United States from a subsequent terrorist attack in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, FISA would impermissibly interfere with the president’s most solemn constitutional obligation—to defend the United States against foreign attack,” the DOJ claims. Neither Congress nor the court system has the right to limit or even review the president’s powers, according to the DOJ. Greenwald calls the DOJ’s argument “a naked theory of limitless presidential power.” In fact, Greenwald argues, the DOJ is asserting that FISA itself is unconstitutional, because no law can in any way limit the president’s power to conduct foreign policy or protect the nation’s security. The document is part of a larger Bush administration defense of the USA Patriot Act, and part of the administration’s push to convince Congress to reauthorize that legislation. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sends the document to Congress. Justice Department official Steven Bradbury says, “When it comes to responding to external threats to the country… the government would like to have a single executive who could act nimbly and agilely.” [US Department of Justice, 1/19/2006 pdf file; Glenn Greenwald, 1/20/2006; Washington Post, 1/20/2006]
Dubious Legality - The program has already been found to be of questionable legality by two reports recently released by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (see January 5, 2006 and January 18, 2006). And author James Bamford, a US intelligence expert who has written extensively about the NSA, says that the Justice Department’s arguments are specious in light of Congress’s clear intent in its 1978 passage of FISA to block warrantless wiretapping, and its demonstrated lack of intent to allow any such operations within US borders in the October 2001 legislation. “You could review the entire legislative history in the authorization to use military force and I guarantee you won’t find one word about electronic surveillance,” he says. “If you review the legislative history of FISA, you will find Attorney General Griffin Bell testifying before the intelligence committee saying this was specifically passed to prevent a president from claiming inherent presidential powers to do this again.” [Washington Post, 1/20/2006]
Self-Contradictory Justifications - In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write of the “shaky foundation” supporting the administration’s “two-pronged attacks on critics of the wiretapping program and the Patriot Act,” which some officials have claimed authorizes the program. “Beneath the simplistic rhetoric, the administration’s position was self-contradicting,” Savage will write. If Bush has the inherent presidential authority to order warrantless wiretapping, then he needs no authorization from the Patriot Act or any other legislation. But if Congress is endangering the nation by delaying in reauthorizing the Patriot Act and thusly not rendering the program legal, then the wiretapping program is illegal after all. The memo attempts to “paper… over” this problem by claiming that, while Bush has the inherent authority to do whatever he feels is necessary to protect the country, the Patriot Act’s extra police powers are still necessary in “contexts unrelated to terrorism.” Savage will write, “In other words, the administration’s own position, hidden in the fine print, was that the Patriot Act was superfluous and irrelevant to the war on terrorism—a somewhat absurd stance made necessary by their desire to say the wiretapping program was legal.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 315]
Failure to Address Probable Beginning of Program Before Attacks - The Justice Department says nothing about the program apparently beginning well before 9/11 (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, July 2001, and Early 2002).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, James Bamford, Steven Bradbury, US Department of Justice, Griffin Bell, Senate Judiciary Committee, Glenn Greenwald, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Alberto R. Gonzales, Arlen Specter, George W. Bush, Congressional Research Service, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The White House twice convinces Congressional leaders to derail or water down upcoming Congressional hearings into its warrantless wiretapping program, dodging potentially embarrassing public revelations about its surveillance of US citizens. Some observers praise the Bush administration for accepting more Congressional oversight, but some lawmakers feel the concessions made by the White House in return for Congress’s back down from full hearings mean little. Privately, some Republicans say that the White House came far closer to suffering large public setbacks than is generally known, and that President Bush must be more forthcoming about the warrantless wiretapping program if he wants to retain the good will of Congress. On February 8, a day before the House Intelligence Committee is to begin its hearings on the program, some lawmakers are complaining that the administration is trying to dodge any real discussion of the program; two days before, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had defended the program without providing any details, and the White House intended to send Gonzales and former NSA head Michael Hayden to the hearings to give the same limited briefing. Instead, the White House agrees to have Gonzales and Hayden provide more details about the program’s “procedural aspects,” the first time a full Congressional committee has received a briefing about the program (see January 4, 2006 and January 18, 2006). Many committee members are placated by the briefing. In return, committee leaders agree to stymie Democrats’ attempts to hold more expansive hearings into the program. On February 17, the Senate Intelligence Committee deals with a motion by ranking Democrat Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to open a broad inquiry into the program. But White House chief of staff Andrew Card has, two days before, spoken with committee member Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Snowe had expressed her own concerns about the program’s legality, and its infringement on constitutional civil liberties, and she is, according to Senate sources briefed on the call, “taken aback” by Card’s intransigence about restricting Congressional oversight of the program. Snowe and fellow senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), another Republican who has voiced his own doubts about the program, speak with committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS). Roberts thinks he has the votes to defeat Rockefeller’s motion, but he learns Snowe and Hagel will support it, thus ensuring its passage. Thus informed, Roberts blocks passage of the motion by arranging a party-line vote to adjourn the committee until March 9, a move that infuriates Rockefeller. “The White House has applied heavy pressure in recent weeks to prevent the committee from doing its job,” he says after the adjournment. Both Hagel and Snowe deny folding under administration pressure. The White House is supportive of a proposal by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) that would exempt the NSA program from FISA, while providing for limited congressional oversight. [Washington Post, 2/19/2006]

Entity Tags: Olympia Snowe, Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, Mike DeWine, National Security Agency, John D. Rockefeller, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Alberto R. Gonzales, Michael Hayden, House Intelligence Committee, Chuck Hagel, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) tells reporters that he intends to push through legislation that would censure President Bush because of his domestic surveillance program (see February 2001, Spring 2001, After September 11, 2001, After September 11, 2001, October 2001, Early 2002, September 2002, Late 2003-Early 2004, April 19-20, 2004, June 9, 2005, June 9, 2005, December 15, 2005, December 17, 2005, December 19, 2005, December 24, 2005, January 5, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 23, 2006, and January 30, 2006). “What the president did by consciously and intentionally violating the Constitution and laws of this country with this illegal wiretapping has to be answered,” Feingold tells an interviewer. “Proper accountability is a censuring of the president, saying, ‘Mr. President, acknowledge that you broke the law, return to the law, return to our system of government.‘… The president has broken the law and, in some way, he must be held accountable.… Congress has to reassert our system of government, and the cleanest and the most efficient way to do that is to censure the president. And, hopefully, he will acknowledge that he did something wrong.” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) calls Feingold’s proposal “a crazy political move.” The Senate Intelligence Committee, following the Bush administration’s lead, has rejected some Democrats’ call for a full investigation of the surveillance program (see February 1-6, 2006). Instead, the committee has adopted a Republican plan for a seven-member subcommittee to conduct oversight. Feingold says his censure motion is not “a harsh approach, and it’s one that I think should lead to bipartisan support.” Frist, however, says: “I think it, in part, is a political move because here we are, the Republican Party, the leadership in the Congress, supporting the president of the United States as commander in chief who is out there fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the people who have sworn—have sworn—to destroy Western civilization and all the families listening to us.… The signal that it sends that there is in any way a lack of support for our commander in chief who is leading us with a bold vision in a way that we know is making our homeland safer is wrong. And it sends a perception around the world.” Only once in history has a president been censured by Congress: Andrew Jackson in 1834. In the House, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) is exploring the idea of introducing impeachment legislation against Bush. [New York Times, 3/12/2006; Associated Press, 3/12/2006] Feingold says on the Senate floor: “The president has violated the law and Congress must respond. A formal censure by Congress is an appropriate and responsible first step to assure the public that when the president thinks he can violate the law without consequences, Congress has the will to hold him accountable.” Most Congressional Democrats want nothing to do with either Feingold’s or Conyers’s legislative ideas, and some Republicans seem to be daring Democrats to vote for the proposal. Vice President Dick Cheney tells a Republican audience in Feingold’s home state of Wisconsin, “Some Democrats in Congress have decided the president is the enemy.” Democratic leaders in the Senate thwart an immediate vote as requested by Frist, and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) says he is not sure the proposal will ever come to a vote. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says he does not support it and has not read it. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) makes a similar assertion. In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) refuses to support such a proposal, saying in a statement that she “understands Senator Feingold’s frustration that the facts about the NSA domestic surveillance program have not been disclosed appropriately to Congress. Both the House and the Senate must fully investigate the program and assign responsibility for any laws that may have been broken.” [Associated Press, 3/14/2006] Former Nixon aide John Dean testifies in support of Feingold’s censure motion (see March 31, 2006). However, the censure motion, lacking support from Democratic leaders and being used by Republicans as a means to attack Democrats’ patriotism, never comes to a vote. [Klein, 2009, pp. 84]

Entity Tags: Joseph Lieberman, George W. Bush, Bush administration (43), Bill Frist, Harry Reid, John Dean, Russell D. Feingold, Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard (“Dick”) Durbin, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, John Conyers

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

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