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Context of 'August 7, 2007: Protect America Act Another ‘Three-Step Waltz’ by Administration to Garner New Power'

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David Hicks.David Hicks. [Source: Associated Press]In the case of Rasul v. Bush, involving Guantanamo detainees Shafiq Rasul, Mamdouh Habib, David Hicks, and Asif Iqbal, the Supreme Court holds in a 6-3 ruling that the US exercises “complete jurisdiction and control” over Guantanamo Bay, and thus, that the Guantanamo prisoners have the right to challenge their detentions before a judge. Under the habeas corpus statute, Justice John Paul Stevens writes for the majority that “aliens held at the base, no less than American citizens, are entitled to invoke the federal courts’ authority.” [Supreme Court opinion on writ of certiorari. Shafiq Rasul, et al. v. George W. Bush, et al., 6/28/2004] It is unclear whether the court’s ruling is intended to extend to detainees held in other parts of the world, but given the court’s reasoning, it appears that decision applies to detainees both in Guantanamo and elsewhere. [New York Times, 6/29/2004]
Conservative Dissent - The three dissenting justices are conservatives William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Scalia says the decision is “an irresponsible overturning of settled law in a matter of extreme importance to our forces currently in the field.” He acknowledges that the location of Guantanamo has in fact been intended to keep detainees outside of the reach of the judiciary. “Today, the court springs a trap on the executive, subjecting Guantanamo Bay to the oversight of federal courts even though it has never before been thought to be within their jurisdiction, and thus making it a foolish place to have housed alien wartime detainees,” Scalia writes. Stevens writes that it does not matter what status the Guantanamo inmates have regarding the question of whether they should have access to a US court. “What is presently at stake is only whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to determine the legality of the executive’s potentially indefinite detention of individuals who claim to be wholly innocent of wrongdoing.” And this, he writes, they do. The case is subsequently sent back to a lower court to consider the prisoners’ claims. [Guardian, 6/28/2004]
Side-Stepping the Ruling - The media characterizes the decision as a rebuke for the Bush administration, which had argued that the courts have no right to interfere in the commander in chief’s decisions involving wartime policies. However, the decision says nothing about what rights the detainees might have once they get inside a courtroom, and therefore actually places little real restraint on the government. White House officials will decide that the detainees have no rights in the courtroom whatsoever—although the Court has ruled that they can file lawsuits, those lawsuits must be dismissed out of hand because the detainees have no right to actually present a case. The Republican-led Congress will later pass a law stripping courts of jurisdiction over Guantanamo lawsuits. [Savage, 2007, pp. 192]

Entity Tags: William Rehnquist, Shafiq Rasul, Mamdouh Habib, Antonin Scalia, David Hicks, Asif Iqbal, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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

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

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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

Bush administration officials tell Senate Intelligence Committee members that they will not promise to continue seeking warrants for surveillance on US citizens, as the administration agreed to do in January 2007. They insist that President Bush has the Constitutional authority to decide whether or not to order the NSA to conduct surveillance without warrants if he desires. The secret wiretapping program was revealed to the public just weeks before the agreement (see December 15, 2005), and immediately drew tremendous outcries of criticism from civil libertarians, from lawmakers from all across the political spectrum, and from much of the public. Since the January agreement, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court has issued warrants for domestic wiretaps after being given evidence showing some kind of probable cause to justify the proposed surveillance. Previously, the wiretapping program had ignored the FISA restrictions. Now Bush officials, most notably the new director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, are saying that Bush has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to order warrantless wiretaps on US citizens.
Invoking Presidential Authority - In Senate testimony on this day, Russ Feingold (D-WI) asks McConnell if he is willing to promise that the administration will no longer ignore the law and the court when monitoring citizens. McConnell replies, “Sir, the president’s authority under Article II is in the Constitution. So if the president chose to exercise Article II authority, that would be the president’s call.” McConnell is echoing previous arguments made by Bush and other officials, who have said that Bush has the power to order wiretaps without court review, both under the Constitution and under the September 2001 Congressional authorization to use military force against al-Qaeda. McConnell says that the administration is conducting surveillance against Americans only with court warrants, and has no plans “that we are formulating or thinking about currently” to resume domestic wiretapping without warrants. “But I’d just highlight,” he adds, “Article II is Article II, so in a different circumstance, I can’t speak for the president what he might decide.” [New York Times, 5/2/2007] Article II is the section of the Constitution that delineates the powers of the executive branch, and establishes the fundamental “separation of powers” doctrine that governs American democracy. Constitutional expert Steve Mount notes that the “Constitution is deliberately inefficient; the “Separation of Powers devised by the framers of the Constitution was designed to do one primary thing: to prevent the majority from ruling with an iron fist.” [Mount, 1995]
White House Seeking Congressional Authorization - While the administration continues to argue that it has the power to eavesdrop on US citizens without warrants, it also continues to seek Congressional legislation affirming and perhaps expanding that power. The White House justifies that hoped-for legislation by pointing to national security and the war on terrorism, as well as the challenges posed by new communications technologies such as e-mail and wireless communications. White House officials have consistently refused to go into specifics as to what communications gaps they feel need plugging. And they have consistently ignored Congressional requests for information and documents related to the NSA’s domestic spy program, now being called the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” by White House officials and their Republican colleagues. Many Congressional Democrats say they would be reluctant to support any such legislation until they receive the information they have requested. “To this day, we have never been provided the presidential authorization that cleared that program to go or the attorney general-Department of Justice opinions that declared it to be lawful,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). “Where’s the transparency as to the presidential authorizations for this closed program? That’s a pretty big ‘we’re not going to tell you’ in this new atmosphere of trust we’re trying to build.” [New York Times, 5/2/2007]

Entity Tags: Steve Mount, Sheldon Whitehouse, Senate Intelligence Committee, National Security Agency, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Russell D. Feingold, Mike McConnell, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Mitch McConnell.Mitch McConnell. [Source: US Senate]President Bush signs the controversial Protect America Act (PAA) into law. The bill, which drastically modifies the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 (see 1978), was sponsored by two Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Christopher Bond (R-MO), but written by the Bush administration’s intelligence advisers. [US Senate, 8/5/2007; Washington Post, 8/5/2007] It passed both houses of Congress with little debate and no hearings (see August 1-4, 2007). “This more or less legalizes the NSA [domestic surveillance] program,” says Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies. [New York Times, 8/6/2007] Slate’s Patrick Radden Keefe adds ominously, “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is now dead, and it’s never coming back.” [Slate, 8/6/2007] The PAA expires in six months, the only real concession Congressional Democrats were able to secure. Though the Bush administration and its allies in Congress insist that the law gives the government “the essential tools it needs” to conduct necessary surveillance of foreign-based terrorists while protecting Americans’ civil liberties, many Democrats and civil liberties organizations say the bill allows the government to wiretap US residents in communication with overseas parties without judiciary or Congressional oversight. Bush calls the bill “a temporary, narrowly focused statute to deal with the most immediate shortcomings in the law” that needs to be expanded and made permanent by subsequent legislation. The administration says that the lack of judiciary oversight in the new law will be adequately covered by “internal bureaucratic controls” at the National Security Agency. [Associated Press, 8/5/2007; Washington Post, 8/5/2007]
Reining in FISA - The PAA allows FISA to return “to its original focus on protecting the rights of Americans, while not acting as an obstacle to conducting foreign intelligence surveillance on foreign targets located overseas.” Before the PAA, the White House says, FISA created unnecessary obstacles in allowing US intelligence to “gain real-time information about the intent of our enemies overseas,” and “diverted scarce resources that would be better spent safeguarding the civil liberties of people in the United States, not foreign terrorists who wish to do us harm.” The PAA no longer requires the government to obtain FISA warrants to monitor “foreign intelligence targets located in foreign countries” who are contacting, or being contacted by, US citizens inside US borders. FISA will continue to review the procedures used by US intelligence officials in monitoring US citizens and foreign contacts by having the attorney general inform the FISA Court of the procedures used by the intelligence community to determine surveillance targets are outside the United States.”
Allows Third Parties to Assist in Surveillance, Grants Immunity - The PAA also allows the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to secure the cooperation of “third parties,” particularly telecommunications firms and phone carriers, to “provide the information, facilities, and assistance necessary to conduct surveillance of foreign intelligence targets located overseas.” It provides these firms with immunity from any civil lawsuits engendered by such cooperation.
Short Term Legislation - The White House says that Congress must pass further legislation to give telecommunications firms permanent and retroactive immunity against civil lawsuits arising from their cooperation with the government’s domestic surveillance program. [White House, 8/6/2006]
Temporary Suspension of the Constitution? - Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, says: “I’m not comfortable suspending the Constitution even temporarily. The countries we detest around the world are the ones that spy on their own people. Usually they say they do it for the sake of public safety and security.” [Washington Post, 8/5/2007]

Entity Tags: Christopher (“Kit”) Bond, National Security Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Mitch McConnell, Al-Qaeda, Terrorist Surveillance Program, Kate Martin, Patrick Radden Keefe, Rush Holt, Protect America Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Aziz Huq.Aziz Huq. [Source: American Prospect]Aziz Huq, an author and the director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, writes that the Protect America Act (PAA-see August 5, 2007) came about as a result of what he calls “the most recent example of the national security waltz, a three-step administration maneuver for taking defeat and turning it into victory.” Step one is a court defeat for the administration, for example regarding detainees at Guantanamo (see June 28, 2004), or the overruling of military commissions in 2006 (see June 30, 2006). The second step, which comes weeks or months later, is an announcement that the ruling has created a security crisis and must be “remedied” through immediate legislation. The third and final step is the administration pushing legislation through Congress, such as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005) or the Military Commissions Act, that, Huq writes, “not only undoes the good court decision but also inflicts substantial damage to the infrastructure of accountability.”
Step One: FISC Refuses to Approve NSA's Surveillance Program - In January 2007, the administration announced that it was submitting the NSA’s domestic surveillance program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the secret court that issues FISA warrants for surveillance (see May 1, 2007). This was due to pending court cases threatening to rule the program in violation of FISA and the Fourth Amendment; the administration wanted to forestall, or at least sidestep, those upcoming rulings. In June, FISC refused to approve parts of the NSA program that involved monitoring overseas communications that passed through US telecom switches. Since a tremendous amount of overseas communications are routed through US networks, this ruling jeopardized the NSA’s previous ability to wiretap such communications virtually at will without a warrant. The administration objected to the NSA having to secure such warrants.
Step Two: The Drumbeat Begins - Months later, the drumbeat for new legislation to give the NSA untrammeled rights to monitor “overseas” communications, which not only traveled through US networks, but often began or ended with US citizens, began with appearances in the right-wing media by administration supporters, where they insisted that the FISC ruling was seriously hampering the NSA’s ability to garner much-needed intelligence on terrorist plots against the US. The White House and Congressional Republicans drafted legislation giving the NSA what it wanted, and presented it during the last week of the Congressional session, minimizing the time needed for scrutiny of the legislation as well as reducing the time available for meaningful debate.
Step Three: Passing a Law With Hidden Teeth - The legislation that would become the Protect America Act was carefully written by Bush officials, and would go much farther than giving the NSA the leeway it needed to wiretap US citizens. Instead, as Huq writes, “the Protect America Act is a dramatic, across-the-board expansion of government authority to collect information without judicial oversight.” Democrats believed they had negotiated a deal with the administration’s Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, to limit the law to addressing foreign surveillance wiretaps, but, Huq writes, “the White House torpedoed that deal and won a far broader law.” The law removes any real accountability over domestic surveillance by either Congress or the judiciary. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says that the PAA provides “unlimited access to currently protected personal information that is already accessible through an oversight procedure.” The law is part of the administration’s continual attempts to “eviscerat[e]” the checks and balances that form the foundation of US democracy.
Ramifications - The law includes the provision that warrantless surveillance can be “directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.” Huq writes that this is a tremendously broad and vague standard that allows “freewheeling surveillance of Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” He adds: “The problem lies in the words ‘directed at.’ Under this language, the NSA could decide to ‘direct’ its surveillance at Peshawar, Pakistan—and seize all US calls going to and from there.… Simply put, the law is an open-ended invitation to collect Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” The law does not impose any restrictions on the reason for surveillance. National security concerns are no longer the standard for implementing surveillance of communications. And the phrase “reasonably believe” is uncertain. The provisions for oversight are, Huq writes, “risibly weak.” Surveillance need only be explained by presentations by the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to FISC, which has little room to invalidate any surveillance, and furthermore will not be informed of any specific cases of surveillance. As for Congress, the Attorney General only need inform that body of “incidents of noncompliance” as reported by the administration. Congress must rely on the administration to police itself; it cannot demand particulars or examine documentation for itself. The law expires in six months, but, Huq notes, that deadline comes up in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, with all the pressures that entails. And the law allows “the NSA to continue wielding its new surveillance powers for up to a year afterward.” The law, Huq writes, “does not enhance security-related surveillance powers. Rather, it allows the government to spy when there is no security justification. And it abandons all but the pretense of oversight.” [Nation, 8/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Mike McConnell, Detainee Treatment Act, Bush administration (43), Aziz Huq, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Military Commissions Act, National Security Agency, US Supreme Court, Philip Giraldi, Protect America Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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