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Context of 'January-June 2004: OLC Head Goldsmith Battles Cheney Aide Over Detention of Terror Suspects'

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Jack Goldsmith succeeds Jay Bybee as the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The OLC essentially performs two functions: advising the executive branch on the legal limits of presidential power, and crafts legal justifications for the actions of the president and the executive branch. Goldsmith, who along with fellow Justice Department counsel and law professor John Yoo, is seen as one of the department’s newest and brightest conservative stars. But instead of aiding the Bush administration in expanding the power of the executive branch, Goldsmith will spend nine tumultuous months battling the White House on issues such as the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, the administration’s advocacy of torture in the interrogation of terrorism suspects, and the extralegal detention and military tribunals of “enemy combatants.” Goldsmith will find himself at odds with Yoo, the author of two controversial OLC memos that grant the US government wide latitude in torturing terror suspects (see January 9, 2002 and August 1, 2002), with White House counsel and future attorney general Alberto Gonzales, and with the chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, David Addington, who along with Cheney is one of the strongest advocates of the so-called “unitary executive” theory of governance, which says the president has virtually unlimited powers, especially in the areas of national security and foreign policy, and is not always subject to Congressional or judicial oversight. Within hours of Goldsmith’s swearing-in, Goldsmith receives a phone call from Gonzales asking if the Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects civilians in war zones such as Iraq, covers terrorists and insurgents as well. Goldsmith, after intensive review with other lawyers in and out of the Justice Department, concludes that the conventions do indeed apply. Ashcroft concurs. The White House does not. Goldsmith’s deputy, Patrick Philbin, says to Goldsmith as they drive to the White House to meet with Gonzales and Addington, “They’re going to be really mad. They’re not going to understand our decision. They’ve never been told no.” Philbin’s prediction is accurate; Addington is, Goldsmith recalls, “livid.” The physically and intellectually imposing Addington thunders, “The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections. You cannot question his decision.” Addington refuses to accept Goldsmith’s explanations. Months later, an unmollified Addington will tell Goldsmith in an argument about another presidential decision, “If you rule that way, the blood of the hundred thousand people who die in the next attack will be on your hands.” These initial encounters set the tone for Goldsmith’s stormy tenure as head of the OLC. Goldsmith will lead a small group of administration lawyers in what New York Times Magazine reporter Jeffrey Rosen calls a “behind-the-scenes revolt against what [Goldsmith] considered the constitutional excesses of the legal policies embraced by his White House superiors in the war on terror,” Goldsmith will resign in June of 2004 (see June 17, 2004). [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo, Jack Goldsmith, David S. Addington, Alberto R. Gonzales, National Security Agency, Jay S. Bybee, John Ashcroft, Jeffrey Rosen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jack Goldsmith, the new head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (see October 6, 2003), finds himself embroiled in a huge, if secretive, controversy over Justice Department lawyer John Yoo’s torture memos (see January 9, 2002 and January 25, 2002). Yoo, who wrote the original memos over former OLC chief Jay Bybee’s signature, had placed the OLC in the position of asserting that torture can indeed be used against terror suspects. Goldsmith disagrees, feeling that Yoo’s definitions of torture are far too narrow and give far too much latitude to US interrogators. He also believes that Yoo’s assertions of near-unchecked presidential power to authorize torture—at the direct expense of Congressional and judicial oversight—has no legal basis. And, Goldsmith worries, the opinions could be interpreted as a clumsy, “tendentious” attempt to protect Bush officials from criminal charges. The conflict between Goldsmith and Yoo will cost the two men their friendship. “I was basically taking steps to fix the mistakes of a close friend, who I knew would be mad about it,” Goldsmith will recall in 2007. “We don’t talk anymore, and that’s one of the many sad things about my time in government.” Goldsmith decides to withdraw the follow-up March 2003 torture memo, and tells White House officials they cannot rely on it any longer. Actually doing so proves a tricky business. [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
'Serious, Serious Problems' - Goldsmith will say in September 2007: “As soon as I absorbed the opinions I realized… that my reaction to them was a big problem. The Office of Legal Counsel rarely overturns its prior opinions, and even more rarely does so within an administration, and even more rarely than that, in the same administration about something this important. I didn’t find any precedent for it. And I did not want to do anything to affect either the programs or the underlying opinions. But they were serious, serious problems, and I knew if and when I was asked to stand by them that I would have a very hard time doing so.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]
Pressure from Abu Ghraib Scandal - The legal and bureaucratic niceties of withdrawing the memos become moot when, in April 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal breaks (see Mid-April 2004), and when in June 2004, the first memo is leaked to the media. “After the leak, there was a lot of pressure on me within the administration to stand by the opinion,” he later says, “and the problem was that I had decided six months earlier that I couldn’t stand by the opinion.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007] “I had determined that the analysis was flawed,” he will recall. “But I hadn’t determined the underlying techniques were illegal. After Abu Ghraib, there was enormous pressure for me to stand by the decisions… and I couldn’t do so. I had already made up my mind many months earlier and I wasn’t about to change it. But I struggled for several days with what the consequences might be of withdrawing the opinion, because I wasn’t in the position to make an independent ruling on the other techniques. I certainly didn’t think they were unlawful, but I couldn’t get an opinion that they were lawful either. So I struggled to repudiate the flawed opinion while not causing massive disruption and fright throughout the counterterrorism world related to interrogation. And I ultimately decided that I had to withdraw those and under suspicions, stand by it, because it was so thoroughly flawed.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]
White House Resists Change - Though Goldsmith has the support of his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Ashcroft’s deputy, James Comey, and his own deputy, Patrick Philbin, he knows the White House will fight the withdrawal. Goldsmith will decide to issue the withdrawal and then resign his position (see June 17, 2004), effectively forcing the administration to either quietly accept the withdrawal, or fight it and make his resignation a media circus. “If the story had come out that the US government decided to stick by the controversial opinions that led the head of the Office of Legal Counsel to resign, that would have looked bad,” he later recalls. “The timing was designed to ensure that the decision stuck.” Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief aide, David Addington, among other White House officials, is furious over the withdrawal of the torture opinion (interestingly, White House counsel and future attorney general Alberto Gonzales will modify his own opposition to the withdrawals later, telling Goldsmith in 2007, “I guess those opinions really were as bad as you said”). [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
Expansion of Presidential Power - Addington asks Goldsmith incredulously, “Why are you trying to give away the president’s power?” Like Cheney, Addington believes, in Goldsmith’s words, “that the very act of asking for Congress’s help would imply, contrary to the White House line, that the president needed legislative approval and could not act on his own. The president’s power would diminish, Addington thought, if Congress declined its support once asked, especially if it tried to restrict presidential power in some way. Congress had balked, during the month after 9/11, at giving the president everything he had asked for in the Congressional authorization to use force and the Patriot Act. Things would only be worse in 2004 and beyond, Addington believed.” Addington’s two questions are always, Goldsmith writes, “‘Do we have the legal power to do it ourselves?’ (meaning on the president’s sole authority), and ‘Might Congress limit our options in ways that jeopardize American lives?’” While Goldsmith and his colleagues agree that the president has the power, and that seeking Congressional approval might tie the White House’s hands more so than the administration is willing to accept, Goldsmith worries that an unfavorable Supreme Court decision would undercut Bush’s authority much more so than any restrictions passed by a compliant, Republican-led Congress. Addington sees things in very simple terms: ”“We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop,” Addington says on several occasions. Addington tells Goldsmith, “Now that you’ve withdrawn legal opinions that the president of the United States has been relying on, I need you to go through all of [the OLC terror memos] and let me know which ones you still stand by.” Goldsmith will do just that, further angering Addington. [Savage, 2007, pp. 184; Slate, 9/11/2007]
Absolute Power Required to Defend Nation - Goldsmith later writes: “He and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint. These men believed that the president would be best equipped to identify and defeat the uncertain, shifting, and lethal new enemy by eliminating all hurdles to the exercise of his power. They had no sense of trading constraint for power. It seemed never to occur to them that it might be possible to increase the president’s strength and effectiveness by accepting small limits on his prerogatives in order to secure more significant support from Congress, the courts, or allies. They believed cooperation and compromise signaled weakness and emboldened the enemies of America and the executive branch. When it came to terrorism, they viewed every encounter outside the innermost core of most trusted advisers as a zero-sum game that if they didn’t win they would necessarily lose.” [Slate, 9/11/2007]

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), James B. Comey Jr., David S. Addington, Patrick F. Philbin, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Daniel Levin, Jack Goldsmith, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jack Goldsmith, the embattled head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) (see October 6, 2003), finds himself again mired in a conflict with Vice President Dick Cheney’s hardline chief aide, David Addington. Goldsmith has already fought with Addington over Goldsmith’s decision to withdraw the OLC’s support for the administration’s memos justifying torture (see December 2003-June 2004). Now Goldsmith and Addington are at odds over the policies governing the detention and trial of suspected terrorists. The spark for this conflict is the January 2004 Supreme Court decision to review the detention of US citizen and suspected “enemy combatant” Yaser Esam Hamdi (see January 9, 2004). Goldsmith suggests going to Congress to have that body pass legislation declaring such detention legal, reasoning that the Supreme Court would be less likely to rule against the administration if Congress had authorized such detention policies. Addington, who like his boss does not accept the idea that Congress has any business interfering in such policy decisions, refuses to countenance the idea, and Goldsmith’s proposal goes nowhere. In June 2004, the Supreme Court approves the detention policies but put modest legal restrictions on the administration’s ability to detain citizens without trial. Goldsmith, this time with deputy solicitor general Paul Clement, again suggests going to Congress; once again, Addington refuses. The White House, Goldsmith later says, continues to operate as if it could avoid any adverse decisions from the Supreme Court. When the Court issues its decision in the Hamdan case (see November 8, 2004), rejecting the administration’s policy of trying terror suspects in military tribunals without Congressional approval, and upholding the preeminence of the Third Geneva Convention in protecting the rights of accused terror detainees—including al-Qaeda suspects—the decision has a shattering effect on the Bush administration’s legal arguments towards detaining and trying those suspects. Goldsmith believes the Court’s decision is “legally erroneous” but has huge political consequences. Now detainees at Guantanamo Bay have more legal rights than ever before, and for the first time, the specter of war-crimes charges against Bush officials becomes a real possibility. Goldsmith later says that it is in these arguments, more than in the battles over domestic wiretapping or interrogation techniques, that Addington’s attempts to expand presidential power actually backfires. Goldsmith is later vindicated when, in September 2006, one of the last acts of the Republican-led Congress will give the administration every power the administration had asked for, authorizing the military commissions that the Court had rejected. The Bush administration could have avoided a damaging Court decision by working with Congress beforehand. “I’m not a civil libertarian, and what I did wasn’t driven by concerns about civil liberties per se,” he says in a 2007 interview. “It was a disagreement about means, not ends, driven by a desire to make sure that the administration’s counterterrorism policies had a firm legal foundation.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Yaser Esam Hamdi, US Supreme Court, Paul Clement, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), David S. Addington, Jack Goldsmith, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court accepts the habeas case of Yaser Esam Hamdi. For two years, Hamdi has been in detention and has been barred from seeing an attorney, and all the while not having any information about charges against him or of an upcoming trial. “I didn’t know what was going on. Really, I didn’t know anything,” Hamdi later recalls. “I was just in a big question mark, and I didn’t know any answers to any questions.” [CNN, 10/14/2004]

Entity Tags: Yaser Esam Hamdi, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Salim Ahmed Hamdan.Salim Ahmed Hamdan. [Source: Public domain]US District Judge James Robertson rules that the Combatant Status Review Tribunal being held at the Guantanamo base in Cuba to determine the status of detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan is unlawful and cannot continue. At the time of the decision, Hamdan is before the Guantanamo military commission. [Washington Post, 11/9/2004; USA Today, 11/9/2004] The commission system, as set up by White House lawyers David Addington and Timothy Flanigan three years before (see Late October 2001), gives accused terrorists such as Hamdan virtually no rights; in author and reporter Charlie Savage’s words, “the [Bush] administration had crafted rules that would make it easy for prosecutors to win cases.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 195-196]
Violation of Geneva Conventions - Robertson, in his 45-page opinion, says the government should have conducted special hearings to determine whether detainees qualified for prisoner-of-war protections under the Geneva Conventions at the time of capture. [USA Today, 11/9/2004] He says that the Bush administration violated the Geneva Conventions when it designated prisoners as enemy combatants, denied them POW protections, and sent them to Guantanamo. [Boston Globe, 11/9/2004] The Combatant Status Review Tribunals that are currently being held in response to a recent Supreme Court decision (see June 28, 2004) are inadequate, Robertson says, because their purpose is to determine whether detainees are enemy combatants, not POWs, as required by the Third Geneva Convention. [USA Today, 11/9/2004]
Rejects Claims of Presidential Power - Robertson also rejects the administration’s claim that the courts must defer to the president in a time of war. “The president is not a ‘tribunal,’” the judge says. [USA Today, 11/9/2004] Robertson, a Clinton appointee, thus squarely opposes both the president’s military order of November 13, 2001 (see November 13, 2001) establishing the possibility of trial by military tribunal, and his executive order of February 7, 2002 (see February 7, 2002) declaring that the Geneva Conventions do not to apply to Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners. “The government has asserted a position starkly different from the positions and behavior of the United States in previous conflicts,” Robertson writes, “one that can only weaken the United States’ own ability to demand application of the Geneva Conventions to Americans captured during armed conflicts abroad.” [USA Today, 11/9/2004; Washington Post, 11/9/2004; Boston Globe, 11/9/2004]
Orders Military Courts-Martial - Robertson orders that until the government conducts a hearing for Hamdan before a competent tribunal in accordance with the Third Geneva Conventions, he can only be tried in courts-martial, according to the same long-established military rules that apply to trials for US soldiers. [Washington Post, 11/9/2004; Boston Globe, 11/9/2004] Robertson’s ruling is the first by a federal judge to assert that the commissions are illegal. [Washington Post, 11/9/2004]
Hearings Immediately Recessed - When word of Robertson’s ruling comes to Guantanamo, Colonel Peter Brownback, presiding over a pretrial hearing for Hamdan, immediately gavels the hearing closed, declaring an “indefinite recess” for the tribunal. [Savage, 2007, pp. 195-196]
Ruling Applauded by Civil Libertarians, Rejected by Bush Lawyers - Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice; and Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, all applaud Robertson’s ruling. [Boston Globe, 11/9/2004] The Bush administration rejects the court’s ruling and announces its intention to submit a request to a higher court for an emergency stay and reversal of the decision. “We vigorously disagree.… The judge has put terrorism on the same legal footing as legitimate methods of waging war,” Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo says. “The Constitution entrusts to the president the responsibility to safeguard the nation’s security. The Department of Justice will continue to defend the president’s ability and authority under the Constitution to fulfill that duty.” [Washington Post, 11/9/2004; Boston Globe, 11/9/2004] He also says that the commission rules were “carefully crafted to protect America from terrorists while affording those charged with violations of the laws of war with fair process.” [Boston Globe, 11/9/2004]
Ruling May Affect Other Detainees - Though the ruling technically only applies to Hamdan, his civilian attorney, Neal Katyal, says it could affect other detainees. “The judge’s order is designed only to deal with Mr. Hamdan’s case,” Katyal says. “But the spirit of it… extends more broadly to potentially everything that is going on here at Guantanamo.” [USA Today, 11/9/2004]

Entity Tags: Mark Corallo, Neal Katyal, James Robertson, George W. Bush, Anthony D. Romero, Peter Brownback, Charlie Savage, US Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union, Salim Ahmed Hamdan

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Jack Goldsmith’s ‘The Terror Presidency.’Jack Goldsmith’s ‘The Terror Presidency.’ [Source: Barnes and Noble.com]Jack Goldsmith, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) from October 2003 through June 2004, is publishing a new book, The Terror Presidency, in which he details many of the controversies in which he found himself mired during his brief and stormy tenure. Goldsmith was viewed, along with his friend and fellow law professor John Yoo, as two of the department’s newest and brightest conservative stars; the two were called the “New Sovereigntists” by the prestigious political journal Foreign Affairs. But instead of adding his voice to others in the Bush administration who supported the expanding powers of the presidency at the cost of civil liberties, Goldsmith found himself at odds with Yoo, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and other White House and Justice Department officials. The OLC advises the president on the limits of executive power (and finds legal justifications for its actions as well), and Goldsmith became embattled in disputes with the White House over the Bush administration’s systematic attempts to push the boundaries of executive power almost from the onset of his term as OLC chief, especially in light of the administration’s responses to 9/11 and the threat of Islamist terrorism (see October 6, 2003). Goldsmith disagreed with the White House over issues surrounding the use of torture against terrorist suspects (see December 2003-June 2004), the NSA’s secret domestic wiretapping program (see June 17, 2004), the extra-constitutional detention and trial of enemy combatants (see January-June 2004), and other issues.
'Behind-the-Scenes Revolt' - After nine contentious months leading a small group of administration lawyers in what New York Times Magazine reporter Jeffrey Rosen calls a “behind-the-scenes revolt against what [Goldsmith] considered the constitutional excesses of the legal policies embraced by his White House superiors in the war on terror,” Goldsmith resigned. He says of his mindset at the end of his term, “I was disgusted with the whole process and fed up and exhausted.” Goldsmith chose to remain quiet about his resignation, and as a result, his silence was widely misinterpreted by media, legal, and administration observers. Some even felt that Goldsmith should be investigated for his supposed role in drafting the torture memos he had actually opposed. “It was a nightmare,” Goldsmith recalls. “I didn’t say anything to defend myself, except that I didn’t do the things I was accused of.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
Not a Whistleblower - Goldsmith, who now teaches law at Harvard, does not regard himself as a whistleblower. “This book is not about whistle blowing,” he says. “It’s about trying to explain to the public the enormous pressures and tensions inside the executive branch to keep Americans safe and about how that pressure bumps into the wall, and about the difficulties that everyone in the administration has and the pressure to do everything possible to keep Americans safe, and the intense pressure to comply with the law. And it’s an attempt to give a fair-minded and deeply sympathetic description of that tension, and I actually think there’s a structural problem in the presidency because of this, and I’m trying to explain the pressure the administration is under and why it did the things it did, and why it did things correctly in some circumstances and why it made mistakes.” He says he has learned some difficult lessons from his tenure in Washington: “I came away from my time in government thinking, as many people do, that there’s too much secrecy. Both too much secrecy inside the executive branch and between the executive branch and Congress. There’s obviously a trade-off and it’s hard to know when to draw the line. If issues and debates are too tightly drawn, and there’s too much secrecy, then two pathologies occur and we saw them occur in this administration. One is you don’t have the wide-range debate needed to help you avoid errors. Two is, it’s pretty well known that excessive secrecy leaves other people in the government to question what is going on when they get wind of it, and to leak it.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]
Bush, Administration Officials Going Too Far in Placing Politics Above Law - Goldsmith believes that Bush and his officials are their own worst enemies in their attempts to expand presidential power. Goldsmith, like his heroes Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, regards the law as secondary to political leadership. Bush’s indifference and even contempt for the political process has weakened his abilities as a wartime leader, in direct contrast to Lincoln and Roosevelt. “I don’t know if President Bush understood how extreme some of the arguments were about executive power that some people in his administration were making,” Goldsmith says. Since Bush is not a lawyer, “[i]t’s hard to know how he would know.” Bush’s refusal to work with Congress is in direct contradiction to Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s approaches, and that refusal has damaged his administration’s ability to combat terrorism and achieve its agenda. Goldsmith writes that Bush has willfully ignored the axiom that the strongest presidential power is the power to persuade. “The Bush administration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action and legalistic defense,” Goldsmith writes. “This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise.” While Goldsmith agrees with the administration that the terrorist threat is extremely serious, and that the US must counter it aggressively, he quotes his conservative Harvard colleague Charles Fried that Bush “badly overplayed a winning hand.” Bush “could have achieved all that he wanted to achieve, and put it on a firmer foundation, if he had been willing to reach out to other institutions of government.” Instead, he says, Bush weakened the presidency he was so determined to strengthen. “I don’t think any president in the near future can have the same attitude toward executive power, because the other institutions of government won’t allow it. The Bush administration has borrowed its power against future presidents.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
Adding to Presidential Power - He adds, “Basically, the administration has the conception of executive power that suggests they clearly have a public agenda item of wanting to leave the presidency more powerful than they found it. Vice President Cheney was in the Ford White House at the dawn of the resurgent Congress after Watergate and Vietnam and he believed then that the 1970s restrictions put on the executive branch by Congress related to war and intelligence harm the presidency. So one of their agenda items before 9/11 was to keep the power of presidency and expand the power of the presidency to put it back to its rightful place.… They’ve certainly lost a lot of trust of Congress. And the Supreme Court really, I think, cut back on certain presidential prerogatives.… Future presidencies will face a culture of distrust and worry, I believe, because of the actions taken by the Bush administration. A lot of it was unnecessary.… So when you have those pressures [to battle terrorism and keep the nation safe] and then you run into laws that don’t allow you to do what you need to do, I think the prescription is that going it alone unilaterally with executive power is not as good as getting the other institutions on board through consensus and consultation.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]

Entity Tags: Charles Fried, Bush administration (43), Abraham Lincoln, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Jeffrey Rosen, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, John C. Yoo, Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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