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Context of 'June 9, 2004: Criticism Follows Release of OLC and Pentagon Memos'

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John Yoo, the Justice Department’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) deputy assistant attorney general, sends a classified memo to Attorney General John Ashcroft justifying warrantless surveillance of US persons. The National Security Agency (NSA)‘s domestic surveillance authorized by President Bush (see October 4, 2001, Early 2002, and December 15, 2005) will come to be publicly referred to as the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP). This is not the first Yoo memo supporting warrantless surveillance (see September 25, 2001), but a 2009 report on the PSP jointly issued by the inspectors general (IGs) of the Department of Defense (DOD), DOJ, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will refer to it as “[t]he first OLC opinion directly supporting the legality of the PSP.” The IGs’ report will quote from and comment on the memo, noting that “deficiencies in Yoo’s memorandum identified by his successors in the Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General later became critical to DOJ’s decision to reassess the legality of the program in 2003.” According to the IGs’ report, Yoo asserts that warrantless surveillance is constitutional as long as it is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment, which only protects against “unreasonable searches and siezures.” On this point, the IGs’ report will note that Yoo’s successors were troubled by his failure to discuss the Supreme Court’s decision in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), which found the president’s wartime authority to be limited. His memo does acknowledge that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “purports to be the exclusive statutory means for conducting electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence,” but asserts that it is only a “safe harbor for electronic surveillance” because it cannot “restrict the president’s ability to engage in warrantless searches that protect the national security.” Yoo also writes that Congress has not “made a clear statement in FISA that it sought to restrict presidential authority to conduct warrantless searches in the national security area.” The IGs’ report will state that Yoo’s successors considered this problematic because Yoo has omitted discussion of the fact that FISA explicitly authorizes the president to conduct warrantless surveillance during the first 15 days following a declaration of war by Congress, which they considered an expression of Congress’s intent to restrict warrantless surveillance to a limited period of time and specific circumstances. The IGs’ report will also state that Yoo’s memo discusses “the legal rationale for Other Intelligence Activities authorized as part of the PSP,” and that Yoo concludes, “[W]e do not believe that Congress may restrict the president’s inherent constitutional powers, which allow him to gather intelligence necessary to defend the nation from direct attack.” The IGs’ report will say that “Yoo’s discussion of some of the Other Intelligence Activities did not accurately describe the scope of these activities,” and that Yoo’s successors considered his discussion of these other activities to be “insufficient and presenting a serious impediment to recertification of the program as to form and legality.” (Inspectors General 7/10/2009, pp. pp. 11-13)
Memo's Existence Revealed by ACLU Lawsuit - On December 15, 2005, the New York Times will report that Bush authorized an NSA warrantless domestic surveillance program after the 9/11 attacks (see December 15, 2005). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will request records pertaining to the program under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and then sue the Justice Department for the release of records. The existence of Yoo’s November 2 memo will first be revealed in an October 19, 2007 deposition filed by then head of the OLC Steven Bradbury in response to the ACLU lawsuit, which says that it “[concerns] the legality of certain communications intelligence activities.” After the 2009 release of the IGs’ report the ACLU will notify the court and the government will agree to reprocess four OLC memos, including Yoo’s November 2 memo. This memo and a May 6, 2004 memo by Yoo’s OLC successor Jack Goldsmith that disputes many of Yoo’s conclusions will be released in heavily redacted form on March 18, 2011. (ACLU.org 2/7/2006; United States District Court of DC 10/19/2007; American Civil Liberties Union 3/19/2011)
Constitutional Experts Dispute Yoo's Legal Rationale - Numerous authorities on the law will question or reject the legal bases for warrantless domestic surveillance. In 2003, Yoo will leave the OLC. Goldsmith will begin a review of the PSP, after which he will conclude it is probably illegal in some respects and protest, within the executive branch, its continuation (see Late 2003-Early 2004 and December 2003-June 2004). Following the public disclosure of its existence, a January 5, 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service will find it to be of dubious legality (see January 5, 2006). On January 19, 2006, the DOJ will issue a 42-page white paper laying out the legal bases for the program (see January 19, 2006). These bases will be reviewed and rejected by 14 constitutional scholars and former government officials in a joint letter to Congress on February 2, 2006. (al [PDF] 2/2/2006 pdf file) The American Bar Association will adopt a resolution on February 13, 2006 that rejects DOJ’s arguments and calls on Congress to investigate the program. (Delegates 2/13/2006 pdf file) On August 17, 2006, in the case ACLU v. NSA, US district judge Anna Diggs Taylor will reject the government’s invocation of the “state secrets privilege” and its argument that plaintiffs’ lack standing due to their being unable to prove they were surveilled, and will rule that warrantless surveillance is in violation of “the separation of powers doctrine, the Administrative Procedures Act, the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the FISA, and Title III” (see August 17, 2006). Taylor’s ruling will be overturned on appeal, on the grounds that the plaintiffs lack standing as they cannot prove that surveillance has occurred. In another case, Al Haramain v. Barack Obama, the government will make the same arguments, but US district judge Vaughn Walker will reject these and conclude in 2010 that illegal surveillance occurred (see March 31, 2010). (Al-Haramain v. Obama 3/31/2010)

The memos written by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and the Pentagon Working Group cause a flow of criticism when they are revealed in May and June 2004. The Washington Post fumes that the news of the “torture memos” “brings shame on American democracy.” (Washington Post 6/9/2004)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) welcomes the release of nine Bush administration documents that detail that administration’s policies on detainee interrogation and torture (see March 2, 2009). Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU National Security Project, says in a statement: “We welcome the Justice Department’s decision to release these memos, some of which provided the basis for the Bush administration’s unlawful national security policies. These memos essentially argue that the president has a blank check to disregard the Constitution during wartime, not only on foreign battlefields, but also inside the United States. We hope today’s release is a first step, because dozens of other OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] memos, including memos that provided the basis for the Bush administration’s torture and warrantless wiretapping policies, are still being withheld. In order to truly turn the page on a lawless era, these memos should be released immediately.” (American Civil Liberties Union 3/2/2009)


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