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Profile: Beth Nolan

Positions that Beth Nolan has held:

  • White House Counsel (1999-2001)

Beth Nolan was a participant or observer in the following events:

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

Jay Bybee.Jay Bybee. [Source: Public domain]The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) sends a non-classified memo to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, offering the opinion that a policy allowing suspected al-Qaeda members to be tortured abroad “may be justified.” [US Department of Justice, 8/1/2002 pdf file] This memo will later be nicknamed the “Golden Shield” by insiders in the hopes that it will protect government officials from later being charged with war crimes (see April 2002 and After). [ABC News, 4/9/2008]
Multiple Authors - The 50-page “torture memo” is signed and authored by Jay S. Bybee, head of OLC, and co-authored by John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general. It is later revealed that Yoo authored the memo himself, in close consultation with Vice President Cheney’s chief adviser David Addington, and Bybee just signed off on it (see December 2003-June 2004). [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] Deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan also contributed to the memo. Addington contributed the claim that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it is plainly torture. Addington’s reasoning: US and treaty law “do not apply” to the commander in chief, because Congress “may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]
Statute Only Prohibits 'Extreme Acts' - Gonzales had formally asked for the OLC’s legal opinion in response to a request by the CIA for legal guidance. A former administration official, quoted by the Washington Post, says the CIA “was prepared to get more aggressive and re-learn old skills, but only with explicit assurances from the top that they were doing so with the full legal authority the president could confer on them.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] “We conclude that the statute, taken as a whole,” Bybee and Yoo write, “makes plain that it prohibits only extreme acts.” Addressing the question of what exactly constitute such acts of an extreme nature, the authors proceed to define torture as the infliction of “physical pain” that is “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Purely mental pain or suffering can also amount to “torture under Section 2340,” but only if it results “in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g. lasting for months or even years.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004]
Torture Legal and Defensible - Bybee and Yoo appear to conclude that any act short of torture, even though it may be cruel, inhuman or degrading, would be permissible. They examine, for example, “international decisions regarding the use of sensory deprivation techniques.” These cases, they notice, “make clear that while many of these techniques may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, they do not produce pain or suffering of the necessary intensity to meet the definition of torture. From these decisions, we conclude that there is a wide range of such techniques that will not rise to the level of torture.” More astounding is Bybee and Yoo’s view that even torture can be defensible. “We conclude,” they write, “that, under the current circumstances, necessity or self-defense may justify interrogation methods that might violate Section 2340A.” Inflicting physical or mental pain might be justified, Bybee and Yoo argue, “in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network.” In other words, necessity or self-defense may justify torture. Moreover, “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability.” [Washington Post, 6/8/2004] International anti-torture rules, furthermore, “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations” of suspected terrorists. [US News and World Report, 6/21/2004] Laws prohibiting torture would “not apply to the president’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants” in the “war on terror,” because the president has constitutional authority to conduct a military campaign. [Washington Post, 6/27/2004]
Protecting US Officials from Prosecution - In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “In case an interrogator was ever prosecuted for violating the antitorture law (see October 21, 1994 and January 26, 1998, Yoo laid out page after page of legal defenses he could mount to get the charges dismissed. And should someone balk at this strained interpretation of the law, Yoo offered his usual trump card: Applying the antitorture law to interrogations authorized by the president would be unconstitutional, since only the commander in chief could set standards for questioning prisoners.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 155-156]
Virtually Unrestricted Authority of President - “As commander in chief,” the memo argues, “the president has the constitutional authority to order interrogations of enemy combatants to gain intelligence information concerning the military plans of the enemy.” [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] According to some critics, this judgment—which will be echoed in a March 2003 draft Pentagon report (see March 6, 2003)—ignores important past rulings such as the 1952 Supreme Court decision in Youngstown Steel and Tube Co v. Sawyer, which determined that the president, even in wartime, is subject to US laws. [Washington Post, 6/9/2004] The memo also says that US Congress “may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” [Washington Post, 6/27/2004]
Ashcroft Refuses to Release Memo - After the memo’s existence is revealed, Attorney General John Ashcroft denies senators’ requests to release it, and refuses to say if or how the president was involved in the discussion. “The president has a right to hear advice from his attorney general, in confidence,” he says. [New York Times, 6/8/2004; Bloomberg, 6/8/2004; Washington Post, 6/9/2004] Privately, Ashcroft is so irritated by Yoo’s hand-in-glove work with the White House that he begins disparagingly referring to him as “Dr. Yes.” [New York Times, 10/4/2007]
Only 'Analytical' - Responding to questions about the memo, White House press secretary Scott McClellan will claim that the memo “was not prepared to provide advice on specific methods or techniques,” but was “analytical.” But the 50-page memo seems to have been considered immensely important, given its length and the fact that it was signed by Bybee. “Given the topic and length of opinion, it had to get pretty high-level attention,” Beth Nolan, a former White House counsel from 1999-2001, will tell reporters. This view is confirmed by another former Office of Legal Counsel lawyer who says that unlike documents signed by deputies in the Office of Legal Counsel, memorandums signed by the Office’s head are considered legally binding. [Washington Post, 6/9/2004]
Memo Will be Withdrawn - Almost two years later, the OLC’s new head, Jack Goldsmith, will withdraw the torture memos, fearing that they go far beyond anything countenanced by US law (see December 2003-June 2004).
Memo Addresses CIA Concerns - The administration, particularly the axis of neoconservatives centered around Cheney’s office, has enthusiastically advocated the use of violent, abusive, and sometimes tortuous interrogation techniques, though the US has never endorsed such tactics before, and many experts say such techniques are counterproductive. The CIA, responding to the desires from the White House, hastily put together a rough program after consulting with intelligence officials from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where detainees are routinely tortured and killed in captivity, and after studying methods used by former Soviet Union interrogators. The legal questions were continuous. The former deputy legal counsel for the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, Paul Kelbaugh, recalls in 2007: “We were getting asked about combinations—‘Can we do this and this at the same time?… These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature—can they be combined?’ Or ‘Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?’” The “torture memo” is designed to address these concerns. [New York Times, 10/4/2007]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Paul Kelbaugh, Timothy E. Flanigan, Scott McClellan, John Ashcroft, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), David S. Addington, Alberto R. Gonzales, Beth Nolan, Al-Qaeda, Charlie Savage, Central Intelligence Agency, Jack Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

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; Center for Democracy and Technology, 1/9/2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Harold Koh, William S. Sessions, William Van Alstyne, Curtis Bradley, Beth Nolan, Geoffrey Stone, US Department of Justice, Walter Dellinger, Richard Epstein, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman, Laurence Tribe, Kathleen M. Sullivan, Ronald Dworkin, National Security Agency, Philip Heymann, David D. Cole

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

During the Senate hearings to confirm conservative jurist Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the questioning turns to Alito’s views on the “unitary executive” theory (January 1, 1992). The theory seems to have originated in the Reagan administration’s Justice Department (see April 30, 1986), where Alito worked in the Office of Legal Counsel.
Lawyer Testifies to Unitary Executive - Former Clinton White House counsel Beth Nolan testifies about the theory and its potential for dramatically revamping the power of the presidency: “‘Unitary executive’ is a small phrase with almost limitless import. At the very least, it embodies the concept of presidential control over all executive functions, including those that have traditionally been executed by ‘independent’ agencies and other actors not subject to the president’s direct control.… The phrase is also used to embrace expansive interpretations of the president’s substantive powers, and strong limits on the legislative and judicial branches.” Nolan cites a November 2000 speech by Alito to the Federalist Society, where Alito said in part, “the president is largely impervious to statutory law in the areas of foreign affairs, national security, and Congress is effectively powerless to act as a constraint against presidential aggrandizement in these areas.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 100-106] During the questioning session, Alito denies ever discussing the idea of inherent presidential powers during that speech.
Evasive Answers in Hearings - Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) says in his opening statement that he intends to press Alito on his support for what Durbin calls “a marginal theory at best… yet one you’ve said you believe.” Durbin notes that the Bush administration has repeatedly cited the theory to justify its most controversial policies and decisions, particularly in conducting its war on terror. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) adds: “The president is not a king, free to take any action he chooses without limitation, by law.… In the area of executive power, Judge Alito, you have embraced and endorsed the theory of the unitary executive. Your deferential and absolutist view of separation of powers raises questions. Under this view, in times of war the president would, for instance, seem to have inherent authority to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, to ignore Congressional acts at will, or to take any other action he saw fit under his inherent powers. We need to know, when a president goes too far, will you be a check on his power or will you issue him a blank check to exercise whatever power alone he thinks appropriate?” [Savage, 2007, pp. 271-272] However, Alito refuses to address the issue in the hearings, giving what one journalist calls “either confused or less than candid” answers to questions concerning the subject.
Failure to Recall - During questioning, Alito turns aside inquiries about his avowed support for the unitary executive theory, saying he was merely talking about the idea that a president should have control over lesser executive branch officials, and was not referring to the usurpation of Congressional power by the executive. Further questions elicit nothing but a dry definition of the term. Asked about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s stinging dissent in the 2004 Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case (see June 28, 2004), where Thomas wrote that the authors of the Constitution believed a unitary executive was essential to the implementation of US foreign policies, Alito says he does not recall Thomas’s mention of the phrase. Asked about Bush’s signing statement that attempted to invalidate the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005), Alito merely recites the definition of a signing statement, and refuses to actually state his position on the issue (see February 6, 1986 and After). Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), disturbed by Alito’s refusal to address the subject, says he will vote against him in part because of Alito’s embrace of “the gospel of the unitary executive.” Kennedy cites one of the authors of the theory, law professor Steven Calabresi, one of the founders of the Federalist Society, who, Kennedy says, “acknowledged that, if the concept is implemented, it would produce a radical change in how the government operates.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 100-106; Savage, 2007, pp. 271-274]
ACLU Opposes Alito - The ACLU, for only the third time in its history, formally opposes Alito’s nomination, in part because of Alito’s embrace of the unitary executive theory of the presidency, citing Alito’s “expansive view of executive authority and a limited view of the judicial role in curbing abuses of that authority.” In its 86-year history, the ACLU has only opposed two other Court nominees: William Rehnquist and former Solicitor General Robert Bork. [American Civil Liberties Union, 1/9/2006]
Opposition Fails - However, none of this is effective. Alito is sworn in less than a month later, after Democrats in the Senate fail to successfully mount a filibuster against his confirmation. [CNN, 2/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Samuel Alito, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Beth Nolan, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), US Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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