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Context of 'Late October 2001: White House Lawyers and OLC Work in Secret to Draft Military Commissions Procedures for Trying Terror Suspects'

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Less than two weeks after 9/11, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales sets up an interagency group to design a strategy for prosecuting terrorists, and specifically asks it to suggest military commissions as one viable option for prosecution of suspected terrorists.
Membership - The initial participants include Gonzales; White House lawyer Timothy Flanigan; Pentagon general counsel William Haynes; the vice president’s chief counsel, David Addington; National Security Council lawyer John Bellinger; and State Department lawyer Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former career prosecutor who now serves as State’s ambassador at large for war crimes issues and who will head the group.
Various Options - The group spends a month in a windowless conference room at State, bringing in experts from around the government, including military lawyers and Justice Department lawyers. The Justice Department advocates regular trials in civilian courts, such as the trials of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers (see February 26, 1993). However, many in the group object, noting that terrorist trials in regular courthouses on US soil pose security risks. The military lawyers propose courts-martial, which can take place anywhere in the world and would have military protection. A third option, military commissions, would offer the security of courts-martial without the established rules of evidence and procedure courts-martial have; setting up such a system might offer more flexibility in trying suspected terrorists, but many in the group wonder if President Bush would require Congressional authorization. Prosper will later recall, “We were going to go after the people responsible for the attacks, and the operating assumption was that we would capture a significant number of al-Qaeda operatives.” In addition to the use of military commissions, the group begins to work out three other options: ordinary criminal trials, military courts-martial, and tribunals with a mixed membership of civilians and military personnel. The option of a criminal trial by an ordinary federal court is quickly brushed aside for logistical reasons, according to Prosper. “The towers were still smoking, literally. I remember asking: Can the federal courts in New York handle this? It wasn’t a legal question so much as it was logistical. You had 300 al-Qaeda members, potentially. And did we want to put the judges and juries in harm’s way?” Despite the interagency group’s willingness to study the option of military commissions, lawyers at the White House, according to reporter Tim Golden, grow impatient with the group. Some of its members are seen to have “cold feet.” [New York Times, 10/24/2004; Savage, 2007, pp. 135]
Parallel Process at White House - Unbeknownst to Prosper’s group, the White House is crafting its own version of military commissions or tribunals (see Late October 2001). When President Bush issues his executive order creating military tribunals (see November 13, 2001), Prosper and his group will first learn about it by watching the nightly news. [Savage, 2007, pp. 138]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, US Department of State, William J. Haynes, Timothy E. Flanigan, Pierre-Richard Prosper, John Bellinger, Beth Nolan, Alberto R. Gonzales, Scott McClellan, Jay S. Bybee, John Ashcroft, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

White House lawyers have become impatient with the interagency group’s (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001) less than full endorsement of the use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists. By late October, Timothy E. Flanigan takes the task of designing a strategy for prosecuting terrorists away from the group and proceeds to focus on military commissions as the only preferable option. The White House lawyers now work more in secret, excluding many agencies and most of the government’s experts in military and international law, but together with the lawyers of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), with the intention of drafting a presidential military order. [New York Times, 10/24/2004] There is a remarkable secrecy surrounding the drafting process (see November 11-13, 2001). Both Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and his deputy, Larry D. Thompson, are closely consulted. But the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Michael Chertoff is kept out of the loop. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is informed through his general counsel, William J. Haynes. Other Pentagon experts, however, are excluded. [New York Times, 10/24/2004] When the order is signed (see November 13, 2001), many express surprise. “That came like a bolt from the blue,” a former Pentagon official says. “Neither I nor anyone I knew had any insight, any advance knowledge, or any opportunity to comment on the president’s military order.” [Guardian, 6/9/2004] “I can’t tell you how compartmented things were,” retired Rear Adm. Donald J. Guter, the Navy’s Judge Advocate General, later recalls. “This was a closed administration.” [New York Times, 10/24/2004]

Entity Tags: Larry D. Thompson, John Ashcroft, Michael Chertoff, Donald J. Guter, Donald Rumsfeld, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

At a private lunch meeting, Vice President Cheney presents President Bush with a four-page memo, written in strict secrecy by lawyer John Yoo of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (see November 6-10, 2001), and a draft executive order that establishes military commissions for the trial of suspected terrorists (see November 10, 2001). The legal brief mandates that foreign terrorism suspects held in US custody have no access to any courts whatsoever, civil, criminal, military, domestic, or foreign. They can be detained indefinitely without charges. If they are to be tried, they can be tried in closed “military commissions.” [White House, 11/13/2001; Savage, 2007, pp. 138; Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Military Commissions Suitable to 'Unitary Executive' Agenda - According to author Craig Unger, military commissions are a key element of Cheney’s drive towards a “unitary executive,” the accretion of governmental powers to the presidency at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. Federal trials for terror suspects would put them under all the legal procedures provided under the US judicial system, an unacceptable alternative. Military courts-martial would give them the rights granted by the Geneva Conventions. Military commissions, however, are essentially tribunals operating outside of both civilian and military law. Defendants have few rights. Secret evidence can be admitted without being disclosed to the defendants. Hearsay and coerced testimony are admissible. Prisoners can be held indefinitely. [Unger, 2007, pp. 221-222]
No Bureaucratic Footprints - After Bush peruses the memo and the draft order, Cheney takes them back with him to his office. After leaving Bush, Cheney takes extraordinary steps to ensure that no evidence of his involvement remains. The order passes from Cheney to his chief counsel David Addington, and then to associate White House counsel Bradford Berenson. At Berenson, the provenance of the order breaks, as no one tells him of its origin. Berenson rushes the order to deputy staff secretary Stuart Bowen with instructions to prepare it for signature immediately, without advance distribution to Bush’s top advisers. Bowen objects, saying that he had handled thousands of presidential documents without ever sidestepping the strict procedures governing coordination and review. Bowen relents only after being subjected to what he will later recall as “rapid, urgent persuasion” that Bush is standing by to sign and that the order is too sensitive to delay. Berenson will later say he understood that “someone had briefed” Bush “and gone over it” already. “I don’t know who that was.” When it is returned to Bush’s office later in the day, Bush signs it immediately (see November 13, 2001). Virtually no one else has seen the text of the memo. The Cheney/Yoo proposal has become a military order from the commander in chief.
Dodging Proper Channels - The government has had an interagency working group, headed by Pierre Prosper, the ambassador at large for war crimes, working on the same question (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001). But Cheney and Addington have refused to have any contact with Prosper’s group; one of Cheney’s team later says, “The interagency [group] was just constipated.” Cheney leapfrogged over Prosper’s group with their own proposal, performing an adroit bureaucratic move that puts their proposal in place without any oversight whatsoever, and cutting Prosper’s group entirely out of the process. When the news of the order is broadcast on CNN, Secretary of State Colin Powell demands, “What the hell just happened?” An angry Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, sends an aide to find out. Virtually no one, even witnesses to the presidential signing, know that Cheney promulgated the order. In 2007, Washington Post reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker will call the episode “a defining moment in Cheney’s tenure” as vice president. Cheney has little Constitutional power, but his deft behind-the-scenes manuevering and skilled bureaucratic gamesmanship enable him to pull off coups like this one, often leaving even the highest White House officials none the wiser. “[H]e has found a ready patron in George W. Bush for edge-of-the-envelope views on executive supremacy that previous presidents did not assert,” the reporters write. [White House, 11/13/2001; Unger, 2007, pp. 221-222; Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Quiet Contravening of US Law - Six years later, Unger will observe that few inside or outside Washington realize that Cheney has, within a matter of days, contravened and discarded two centuries of American law. He has given the president, in the words of former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein, “the functions of judge, jury, and prosecutor in the trial of war crimes [and] the authority to detain American citizens as enemy combatants indefinitely… a frightening power indistinguishable from King Louis XIV’s execrated lettres de cachet that occasioned the storming of the Bastille.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 223-224]

Entity Tags: Stuart W. Bowen, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo, David S. Addington, George W. Bush, Barton Gellman, Bradford Berenson, Jo Becker, Bruce Fein, Condoleezza Rice, Craig Unger, Colin Powell, Pierre-Richard Prosper

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush issues a three-page executive order authorizing the creation of military commissions to try non-citizens alleged to be involved in international terrorism (see November 10, 2001). The president will decide which defendants will be tried by military commissions. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld will appoint each panel and set its rules and procedures, including the level of proof needed for a conviction. A two-thirds vote is needed to convict a defendant and impose a sentence, including life imprisonment or death. Only the president or the secretary of defense has the authority to overturn a decision. There is no provision for an appeal to US civil courts, foreign courts, or international tribunals. Nor does the order specify how many judges are to preside on a tribunal or what qualifications they must have. [US Department of Defense, 11/13/2001; Washington Post, 11/14/2001; New York Times, 10/24/2004]
Questionable Rule of Evidence Adopted - The order also adopts a rule of evidence stemming from the 1942 Supreme Court case of United States v. Quirin that says evidence shall be admitted “as would… have probative value to a reasonable person.” This rule, according to Judge Evan J. Wallach, “was repeatedly used [in World War II and in the post-war tribunals] to admit evidence of a quality or obtained in a manner which would make it inadmissible under the rules of evidence in both courts of the United States or courts-martial conducted by the armed forces of the United States.” [Wallach, 9/29/2004] Evidence derived from torture, for example, could theoretically be admitted. It should be noted that the order is unprecedented among presidential directives in that it takes away some individuals’ most basic rights, while claiming to have the power of law, with the US Congress not having been so much as consulted.
Specifics Left to Rumsfeld - Bush’s executive order contains few specifics about how the commissions will actually function. Bush will delegate that task to Rumsfeld, although, as with the order itself, White House lawyers will actually make the decision to put Rumsfeld in charge, and Bush will merely sign off on the decision (see March 21, 2002). [Savage, 2007, pp. 138]
Dispute over Trial Procedures - During the next few years, lawyers will battle over the exact proceedings of the trials before military commissions, with many of the military lawyers arguing for more rights for the defendants and with Defense Department chief counsel William J. Haynes, and Justice Department and White House lawyers (including White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, vice presidential counsel David Addington, and Gonzales’ deputy Timothy Flanigan) taking a more restrictive line. [New York Times, 10/24/2004]
Out of the Loop - Both National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell were left outside of the circle during the drafting of this directive (see November 6, 2001 and November 9, 2001). Rice is reportedly angry about not being informed. [New York Times, 10/24/2004]
Serious 'Process Failure' - National Security Council legal adviser John Bellinger will later call the authorization a “process failure” with serious long-term consequences (see February 2009).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, John Bellinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, David S. Addington, Alberto R. Gonzales, William J. Haynes, Timothy E. Flanigan

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

President Barack Obama, in the same sweeping set of executive orders that mandates the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and orders the closure of the CIA’s secret prisons (see January 22, 2009), orders that the US no longer torture prisoners. And in a broad repudiation of Bush administration policies and legal arguments, Obama’s order nullifies every single legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch—including the Department of Justice—since September 11, 2001 (see Shortly After September 11, 2001, Late September 2001, October 23, 2001, Late October 2001, November 6-10, 2001, January 9, 2002, January 25, 2002, and April 2002 and After). “Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away,” the Washington Post reports. Obama orders that all interrogations conducted by the CIA and other US officials strictly follow the procedures outlined in the US Army Field Manual. Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s nominee to become the director of national intelligence, says that the government may revise the Field Manual to include more coercive interrogation techniques; a commission will be appointed to determine if the Field Manual is adequate. Currently the Field Manual limits interrogators to 19 approved techniques, bans torture, and prohibits harsh questioning techniques in favor of using psychological approaches. “I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture,” Obama tells a group of listeners at the State Department. “The message that we are sending the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly and we are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals,” he adds. The US will now “observe core standards of conduct, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.” [Agence France-Presse, 1/22/2009; Los Angeles Times, 1/23/2009; Washington Post, 1/23/2009] Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says that he is certain Obama will not secretly authorize torture. Malinowski says that while Obama might oversee some changes in the Field Manual, he says that Obama will not renege on his promise that detainees would not be tortured or treated inhumanely. [Financial Times, 1/22/2009]

Entity Tags: Human Rights Watch, US Department of Justice, Central Intelligence Agency, Barack Obama, Tom Malinowski, Dennis C. Blair

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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