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Context of 'November 10, 2001: Cheney and Selected Lawyers Finalize Draft of Presidential Order Establishing Military Commissions'

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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

Deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan presents his subordinate, associate counsel Bradford Berenson, with a draft presidential order he has written establishing military tribunals for suspected terrorists. The draft order declares that President Bush is invoking his wartime powers as commander in chief to establish a system of military tribunals, sometimes called military commissions.
Commissions More 'Flexible' - In the White House’s view, military tribunals offer several advantages over either civilian court trials or military courts-martial, as is being discussed in the interagency working group on prosecuting terrorists at the State Department (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001). Civilian trials would be subject to public scrutiny and media spectacle, and would pose a problem of security risks. Military courts-martial are quite rigid in their procedures and rules of evidence. Military commissions, as envisioned by Flanigan and the two other White House lawyers who put together the scheme—Berenson and David Addington, the chief counsel for Vice President Cheney—would offer more “flexibility” for the use of evidence gathered either under battlefield conditions or in interrogations, evidence that might not meet the standards of either a court-martial or a civilian trial. And, as author Charlie Savage will later note, “commissions enhanced presidential power by concentrating the process in the executive branch alone.”
A 'Relic' - Savage will explain: “Under normal trials, Congress defines a crime and sets the sentence for it; the executive branch investigates and prosecutes people who are accused of committing the crime; and the judicial branch runs the trial, decides whether to admit evidence, determines whether the defendant is guilty or innocent, and hears any appeal. With a military commission, all these powers were collapsed into the hands of the armed forces and, ultimately, their commander in chief. Although fairly common in nineteenth-century conflicts, military commissions were a relic: They had not been used by the United States since World War II.”
Support from Justice Department Lawyer - Their work will be bolstered when Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin issues a secret memo declaring that the president has the inherent authority to order military commissions (see November 6, 2001). Flanigan, Berenson, and Addington never inform the interagency working group of their own work, although they made use of the working group’s research. Flanigan, Berenson, and Addington cite Philbin’s memo as the definitive word on the president’s authority. When President Bush announces the order establishing the commissions (see November 13, 2001), the order abruptly short-circuits the interagency working group and renders its work irrelevant. [Savage, 2007, pp. 134-135]

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Bush administration (43), Bradford Berenson, Charlie Savage, George W. Bush, US Department of State, David S. Addington, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Timothy E. Flanigan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

William J. Haynes.William J. Haynes. [Source: US Defense Department]William J. Haynes, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s general counsel, shows a draft of a presidential order establishing military commissions to Colonel Lawrence J. Morris, a judge advocate general (JAG) attorney with strong experience in military justice and the laws of war. Morris heads a Pentagon legal team that has so far been excluded from the discussion on how suspected terrorists should be prosecuted. Col. Morris is given just 30 minutes to read the draft but is not allowed to keep a copy or even take notes. The next day, the Army’s Judge Advocate General, Major General Thomas J. Romig, hastily convenes a meeting of Pentagon lawyers to prepare suggestions for improvement, with an eye on bringing the order closer to existing military legal standards. The final order, however, includes none of the lawyer’s recommendations. “They hadn’t changed a thing,” a military official will later recall. [New York Times, 10/24/2004; Savage, 2007, pp. 138]

Entity Tags: Lawrence J. Morris, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Vice President Cheney leads a meeting at the White House to put the finishing touches on a draft presidential order establishing military commissions (see Late October 2001 and November 9, 2001). The meeting includes Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Department chief counsel William J. Haynes, and several White House lawyers, but leaves out senior officials of the State Department and the National Security Council. Cheney has decided to tell neither National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice nor Secretary of State Colin Powell about the order until it has already been signed. Cheney has also told no one in the interagency working group ostensibly formulating the administration’s approach to prosecuting terrorists (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001). Ashcroft angrily dissents from Cheney’s plan to give the White House sole authority over the commissions, and invokes his authority as the nation’s top law enforcement official to demand that the Justice Department be given a say in the decision. Cheney overrules Ashcroft’s objections. He will discuss the draft with President Bush over lunch a few days later (see November 11-13, 2001). [New York Times, 10/24/2004; Savage, 2007, pp. 138]

Entity Tags: William J. Haynes, Colin Powell, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Condoleezza Rice, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

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

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signs Military Commission Order No. 1 prescribing the procedures of the military commission trials (see November 10, 2001). The order says a two-third majority is required to determine a sentence and unanimity for applying the death penalty. It fails to provide for the possibility of appeals. It also says evidence submitted before a commission “shall” be declared admissible if the presiding officer or a majority of the commission members consider that it “would have probative value to a reasonable person.” [US Department of Defense, 3/21/2002 pdf file]
Fundamental Violations of Defendant Rights - Thus, if the presiding member or a majority considers a statement made under any form of coercion, including torture, to have some “probative value,” it “shall” be admitted. Professor Neal Katyal of Georgetown University later says this is a break with standard proceedings in civil courts and courts-martial and calls it “clearly at odds with American military justice.” [Los Angeles Times, 8/18/2004] Under the rules, the “Accused” is assigned a military officer to conduct his defense, but may select another officer. He may also retain a civilian attorney; however, he may only choose a lawyer who is vetted by the military. Unlike a military attorney, the civilian lawyer can be excluded from the trial if the presiding member of the commission decides to hold closed proceedings. This prompts Amnesty International to observe that the commissions “will restrict the right of defendants to choose their own counsel and to an effective defense.” [Amnesty International, 10/27/2004] Under the rules of the military commissions the military is allowed to monitor private conversations between defense lawyers and their clients. This violates, as Human Rights Watch remarks, “the fundamental notion of attorney-client confidentiality.” [Human Rights Watch, 1/9/2004]
Extraordinary Procedures for a 'Special Breed of Person' - In a discussion of the new rules, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in an appearance on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, explains that the detainees being held in Guantanamo are “dangerous people, whether or not they go before a military commission.” He adds, “We’re dealing with a special breed of person here” and thusly new and far more draconian rules must be applied. [PBS, 3/21/2002]
Battle with JAG Lawyers - Rumsfeld worked with lawyers from the Pentagon’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) office to create the procedures for the commissions. The JAG lawyers viewed the commissions as well outside the established rule of law, both in due process as mandated by the Constitution and in the protections mandated by the Geneva Conventions. But Rumsfeld and his group of political appointees considered the JAGs too closed-minded, and insisted on procedures that horrified the military lawyers—low standards for convictions, denial of civilian attorneys, imposition of the death penalty without unanimous consent of the panel of officers judging the case, and other proposed procedures. The JAGs argued that some of the proposals floated by Rumsfeld and his staff would violate their own ethical standards and put them at risk for later prosecution for war crimes if adopted. One top JAG official threatened to resign if the procedures were not brought more in line with established military law. The final version is a compromise between the two camps. Major General Thomas Romig, the head of JAG, later says that the final version still is not what the JAGs would have created on their own. As reporter and author Charlie Savage will later write, based on Romig’s comments: “While less draconian than the political appointees’ initial plans, the military commissions were still legally objectionable in several respects. The commission rules, for example, allowed secret evidence that would be kept hidden from a defendant and allowed the admission of evidence obtained through coercive interrogations [torture]. Moreover, the special trials still had no explicit congressional authorization.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 138-139]

Entity Tags: Thomas J. Romig, US Department of Defense, Neal Katyal, Donald Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch, Judge Advocate General Corps, Charlie Savage, Geneva Conventions, Paul Wolfowitz

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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