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Context of 'December 21-22, 2005: Justice Department Justifies Usurping of Congressional Authority for NSA Wiretapping'

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The National Security Agency (NSA) engages in apparently illegal surveillance of US citizens beginning shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president. This will not be revealed to the public until media reports in January 2006, a month after the press revealed that the NSA had engaged in similar illegal wiretaps and surveillance of American citizens after the 9/11 attacks, using those attacks as justification for the surveillance (see December 15, 2005). The former NSA and counterterrorism officials who reveal the pre-9/11 spying will claim that the wiretaps, e-mail monitoring, and Internet surveillance were all “inadvertent,” as NSA computers “unintentionally” intercepted US citizens’ international phone calls and e-mails when the computers flagged keywords. NSA protocol demands that such “inadvertent” surveillance end as soon as NSA analysts realize they are spying on those citizens, and the names of the monitored citizens are supposed to be deleted from the NSA databases. Instead, the NSA is instructed to continue monitoring some citizens that are characterized as “of interest” to White House officials. Those officials include President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say the former NSA and counterterrorism officials. In December 2000, the NSA told the incoming Bush administration that some US citizens are being inadvertently targeted for surveillance, but the names of the citizens are deleted because the law expressly prohibits the NSA from spying on US citizens, US corporations, or even permanent US residents (see December 2000). However, once Bush takes office in January 2001, that practice undergoes a radical change. In the first few months of the administration, President Bush assigns Vice President Cheney to make himself more of a presence at the various US intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, NSA, and DIA. Cheney, along with other officials at the State and Defense Departments, begins making repeated requests to the NSA to reveal the identities of those Americans which had previously been deleted, so that administration officials can more fully understand the context and scope of the intelligence. Such requests are technically legal. But Cheney goes well beyond the law when he requests, as he frequently does, that the NSA continue monitoring specific Americans already caught up in the NSA’s wiretaps and electronic surveillance. A former White House counterterrorism official will later claim that Cheney advised Bush of what he was learning from the NSA. “What’s really disturbing is that some of those people the vice president was curious about were people who worked at the White House or the State Department,” says another former counterterrorism official. “There was a real feeling of paranoia that permeated from the vice president’s office and I don’t think it had anything to do with the threat of terrorism. I can’t say what was contained in those taps that piqued his interest. I just don’t know.” (Leopold 1/17/2006)

Congress explicitly refuses to grant the Bush administration the authority to conduct warrantless wiretaps and surveillance operations against US citizens in its resolution authorizing the use of military force (AUMF) against terrorists (see September 14-18, 2001). Tom Daschle (D-SD), the Senate Majority Leader, will write in December 2005 (after his ouster from Congress in November 2004) that the White House and the Justice Department will claim, falsely, that the AUMF grants the right for the NSA to conduct such a program (see Early 2002 and December 15, 2005). Instead, Daschle will write, the NSA merely usurps the authority, with the president’s approval, to conduct such an extralegal surveillance program (see December 21-22, 2005). (Gellman 12/22/2005)
Administration Efforts to Rewrite AUMF - In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Daschle will observe that the AUMF authorizes Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons” who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks. But, Daschle will write, “Literally minutes before the Senate cast its vote, the administration sought to add the words ‘in the United States and’ after ‘appropriate force’ in the agreed-upon text. This last-minute change would have given the president broad authority to exercise expansive powers not just overseas—where we all understood he wanted authority to act—but right here in the United States, potentially against American citizens. I could see no justification for Congress to accede to this extraordinary request for additional authority. I refused.”
No Vote for Domestic Surveillance - Daschle will also write that the White House attempted to add draft language to the AUMF resolution that would give the administration new and sweeping authority to use force to “deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States,” even against nations and organizations not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Bush officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney will claim that the AUMF “granted authority by the Congress to use all means necessary to take on the terrorists, and that’s what we’ve done.” But Daschle will write that Cheney is mistaken. “As Senate majority leader at the time, I helped negotiate that law with the White House counsel’s office over two harried days. I can state categorically that the subject of warrantless wiretaps of American citizens never came up. I did not and never would have supported giving authority to the president for such wiretaps. I am also confident that the 98 senators who voted in favor of authorization of force against al-Qaeda did not believe that they were also voting for warrantless domestic surveillance.” On September 12, six days before the September 18 AUMF vote, Bush officials demand that Congress authorize the use of military force to, in their words, “deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.” But Congress refuses, feeling that the request is “too broad and ill defined.” Instead, on September 14, Congress choses to use language that authorizes Bush to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks. Daschle later writes, “With this language, Congress denied the president the more expansive authority he sought and insisted that his authority be used specifically against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.… The shock and rage we all felt in the hours after the attack were still fresh. America was reeling from the first attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor. We suspected thousands had been killed, and many who worked in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not yet accounted for. Even so, a strong bipartisan majority could not agree to the administration’s request for an unprecedented grant of authority.” Instead, Daschle will write, the administration simply takes the authority anyway, and will argue in hindsight that the AUMF actually gives the administration the right to wiretap US citizens. However, Daschle will write, “at the time, the administration clearly felt they [didn’t have the authority] or it wouldn’t have tried to insert the additional language.”
Breeding 'Fear and Suspicion' - He concludes, “[T]here are right and wrong ways to defeat terrorists, and that is a distinction this administration has never seemed to accept. Instead of employing tactics that preserve Americans’ freedoms and inspire the faith and confidence of the American people, the White House seems to have chosen methods that can only breed fear and suspicion. If the stories in the media over the past week are accurate [detailing the breadth and apparent illegality of the NSA program], the president has exercised authority that I do not believe is granted to him in the Constitution, and that I know is not granted to him in the law that I helped negotiate with his counsel and that Congress approved in the days after Sept. 11. For that reason, the president should explain the specific legal justification for his authorization of these actions, Congress should fully investigate these actions and the president’s justification for them, and the administration should cooperate fully with that investigation. In the meantime, if the president believes the current legal architecture of our country is insufficient for the fight against terrorism, he should propose changes to our laws in the light of day. That is how a great democracy operates. And that is how this great democracy will defeat terrorism.” (Daschle 12/23/2005)

The US Congress adopts a joint resolution, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), that determines that “the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” Congress also states that the “grave acts of violence” committed on the US “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to [its] national security and foreign policy.” (US Congress 9/14/2001) President Bush signs the resolution into law on September 18. (White House 9/18/2001) The passage of the AUMF served another purpose: to extend presidential power. While the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff intended the AUMF to define the conflict in narrow terms, and authorize the US to move militarily against al-Qaeda and its confederates, and the Taliban, Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, had a larger goal. Attorney Scott Horton, who has written two major studies on interrogation of terrorism suspects for the New York City Bar Association, says in 2005 that Cheney and Addington “really wanted [the AUMF defined more broadly], because it provided the trigger for this radical redefinition of presidential power.” Addington helped draft a Justice Department opinion in late 2001, written by lawyer John Yoo (see Late September 2001), that asserted Congress cannot “place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response.” (Ravagan 5/21/2006)

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) writes that Congress explicitly rejected several attempts by the Bush administration to provide him with war-making authority and the authority to wiretap and monitor US citizens “in the United States” when it approved the September 18, 2001 authorization to use military force (AUMF) against terrorists (see September 14-18, 2001). Instead, the Bush administration merely usurped that authority and launched—or expanded (see Spring 2001)—its warrantless wiretapping program, conducted by the NSA. Since then, the Bush administration and the Justice Department have both repeatedly asserted that the AUMF gave them the right to conduct the wiretapping program, an assertion that Daschle says is flatly wrong. On December 21, the Justice Department admitted in a letter that the October 2001 presidential order authorizing warrantless eavesdropping on US citizens did not comply with “the ‘procedures’ of” the law that has regulated domestic espionage since 1978, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA established a secret intelligence court and made it a criminal offense to conduct electronic surveillance without a warrant from that court, “except as authorized by statute.” However, the letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General William Moschella, argues that the AUMF gave the administration the authority to conduct the program. (Gellman 12/22/2005) The letter continues the argument that Congress gave President Bush the implict authority to create an exception to FISA’s warrant requirements, though the AUMF resolution did not mention surveillance and made no reference to the president’s intelligence-gathering authority. The Bush administration kept the program secret until it was revealed by the New York Times on December 15, 2005. Moschella argues that secret intelligence-gathering, even against US citizens, is “a fundamental incident to the use of military force” and that its absence from the resolution “cannot be read to exclude this long-recognized and essential authority to conduct communications intelligence targeted at the enemy.” Such eavesdropping, he argued, must by necessity include conversations in which one party is in the United States. (William Moschella 12/22/2005 pdf file) Daschle, one of the primary authors of the resolution, says that Moschella and the Bush administration are wrong in their assertions: “I did not and never would have supported giving authority to the president for such wiretaps. I am also confident that the 98 senators who voted in favor of authorization of force against al-Qaeda did not believe that they were also voting for warrantless domestic surveillance” (see September 12-18, 2001). (Daschle 12/23/2005)

The Justice Department opens an investigation into the leak of classified information about the Bush domestic surveillance program. The investigation focuses on disclosures to the New York Times about the secret warrantless wiretapping program conducted by the National Security Agency since shortly after the 9/11 attacks (see Early 2002). The White House claims that the Justice Department initiated the investigation on its own after receiving a request from the NSA, and that it was not even informed of the investigation until the decision had already been made. But White House spokesman Trent Duffy hails the investigation, and implicitly accuses the Times of aiding and abetting terrorists by printing its stories. “The leaking of classified information is a serious issue,” Duffy says. “The fact is that al-Qaeda’s playbook is not printed on Page One, and when America’s is, it has serious ramifications.” (Associated Press 12/30/2005) President Bush fuels the attack on the Times when he says, “The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.” (Shane 12/30/2005) Many outside of the administration have accused the wiretapping program, which functions without external oversight or court warrants, of being illegal, and Bush of breaking the law by authorizing it. Administration officials insist that Bush has the power to make such a decision, both under the Constitution’s war powers provision and under the post-9/11 Congressional authorization to use military force against terrorism, even though, as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle recalls, Congress explicitly refused to give Bush the authority to take military action inside the US itself (see December 21-22, 2005). And, in a recent letter to the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the White House claimed that the nation’s security needs outweigh the needs of the citizenry to be secure from secret government surveillance. (Associated Press 12/30/2005) Others disagree. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Anthony Romero says, “President Bush broke the law and lied to the American people when he unilaterally authorized secret wiretaps of US citizens. But rather than focus on this constitutional crisis, Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales is cracking down on critics of his friend and boss. Our nation is strengthened, not weakened, by those whistle-blowers who are courageous enough to speak out on violations of the law.” And Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the NSA should be the focus of an investigation to determine if it broke federal surveillance laws. Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project suggests a middle course. His group does not object to a limited investigation into the leak of classified information, but, he says, if the administration does “a blanket witch hunt, which I fear, it would trample all over good government laws” designed to protect government workers who expose wrongdoing. “The whole reason we have whistle-blower laws is so that government workers can act as the public’s eyes and ears to expose illegality or abuse of power.” (Shane 12/30/2005) Ultimately, this leak investigation may not achieve much, according to law professor Carl Tobias. “It doesn’t seem to me that this leak investigation will take on the importance of the Plame case,” Tobias says. “The bigger story here is still the one about domestic spying and whether the president intends, as he said, to continue doing it.” (Eggen 12/31/2005)

Fourteen law professors and former federal officials send a letter criticizing the Justice Department’s recent legal arguments supporting the legality of the secret NSA surveillance program (see December 19, 2005 and December 21-22, 2005). The letter is signed by law professors Curtis A. Bradley, a former State Department legal advisor; David Cole; Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general and assistant attorney general; Ronald Dworkin; Richard Epstein; Harold Koh, a former assistant secretary of state and a former Justice Department official; Philip B. Heymann, a former deputy attorney general; Martin Lederman, a former Justice Department official; Beth Nolan, a former presidential counsel and a former Justice Department official; William S. Sessions, the former director of the FBI; Geoffrey R. Stone; Kathleen M. Sullivan; Laurence H. Tribe; and William Van Alstyne, a former Justice Department attorney. The letter is couched in legal language, but clearly states that the signees consider the NSA surveillance program entirely illegal: “[T]he program appears on its face to violate existing law.” The signees consider and reject the Justice Department’s argument that Congress “implicitly authorized the NSA program when it enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda” in 2001 (see September 14-18, 2001), writing: “[T]he AUMF cannot reasonably be construed to implicitly authorize warrantless electronic surveillance in the United States during wartime, where Congress has expressly and specifically addressed that precise question in FISA and limited any such warrantless surveillance to the first 15 days of war.” The signees also reject the Justice Department’s argument that the president’s “inherent constitutional authority as commander in chief to collect ‘signals intelligence’” is not prohibited by FISA. The signees conclude that the Justice Department has failed “to offer a plausible legal defense of the NSA domestic spying program. If the administration felt that FISA was insufficient, the proper course was to seek legislative amendment, as it did with other aspects of FISA in the Patriot Act, and as Congress expressly contemplated when it enacted the wartime wiretap provision in FISA. One of the crucial features of a constitutional democracy is that it is always open to the president—or anyone else—to seek to change the law. But it is also beyond dispute that, in such a democracy, the president cannot simply violate criminal laws behind closed doors because he deems them obsolete or impracticable.” (Marty Lederman 1/9/2006; Dworkin et al. 1/9/2006 pdf file)

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; Leonnig 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.” (Leonnig 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).

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; Singel 4/7/2006; Klein 2009, pp. 66-67)

Civil liberties lawyer and columnist Glenn Greenwald states that the recent Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), finding that the Bush administration’s Guantanamo Bay military commissions violate both federal law and the Geneva Conventions, also proves that the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program is illegal (see December 15, 2005). “To arrive at its decision,” Greenwald writes, “the Court emphatically rejected the administration’s radical theories of executive power, and in doing so, rendered entirely discredited the administration’s only defenses for eavesdropping on Americans without the warrants required by law. Actual compliance with the Court’s ruling, then, compels the administration to immediately cease eavesdropping on Americans in violation of FISA,” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). “If the administration continues these programs now, then they are openly defying the Court and the law with a brazeness and contempt for the rule of law that would be unprecedented even for them.” Greenwald notes that FISA prohibits any surveillance of American citizens without judicial approval and oversight. The Bush administration has already admitted to conducting just such surveillance (see December 17, 2005 and December 21, 2005), and President Bush has even stated his intention to expand the program (see December 19, 2005). The Justice Department and a number of administration officials have attempted to claim the NSA surveillance program is both legal and necessary (see December 19, 2005, December 19, 2005, December 21-22, 2005, and Early 2006); Greenwald writes that the Hamdan decision “decimated” those claims, a conclusion shared by a number of legal experts (see January 9, 2006). Moreover, he writes, there is no remaining excuse for Democratic senators not to endorse Senator Russ Feingold’s resolution to censure Bush for violating FISA (see March 12, 2006 and After). The argument advanced by, among others, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), that Bush believed he was complying with the law because his lawyers told him he was in compliance, is no longer relevant in light of Hamdan, Greenwald argues. “[T]here is no longer any good faith basis left for violating FISA. Ongoing warrantless eavesdropping can only be ordered by the president with a deliberate intent to break the law. After Hamdan, there are no more excuses left for the president to violate FISA, and there is therefore no more excuse left for Democratic senators to refuse to take a stand with Sen. Feingold against the administration’s lawbreaking.” Bush has two clear choices, Greenwald writes: either to comply with FISA or openly defy the Supreme Court. “If we are a country that continues to operate under the rule of law, compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling compels the immediate cessation of the president’s warrantless eavesdropping program, as well as what are undoubtedly the other, still-secret programs prohibited by law but which have been justified by these same now-rejected theories of unlimited executive power. Put simply, after Hamdan, there are no more excuses left for the president’s refusal to comply with the law.” (Greenwald 7/8/2006)

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