Tag: due process

Liberty Requires Risk

That’s the message of my recent op-ed in the Daily Caller. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initial reaction to the McDonald v. City of Chicago decision was to say that McDonald would have no impact on government’s ability to keep guns “out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.” This was a reference to legislation that Bloomberg supports that would allow the federal government to bar anyone the Attorney General thinks is a terrorist from purchasing a firearm. Not convicted of a crime in support of terrorism — that would make them a felon and already unable to purchase or own a firearm. No, being suspected of activity in support of or preparation for terrorism means you get the same treatment as if you were a convicted felon or had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. So much for due process.

While D.C. v. Heller is the relevant decision (the AG’s double secret probation list is a federal, not state action), the premise of this legislation needs to be refuted. The proposition that guns and gun ownership are uniquely dangerous such that the right to keep and bear arms must be treated as a second-class provision of the Bill of Rights is willfully blind of the other instances where society accepts risk by safeguarding liberty in the face of foreseeable hazards. Justice Stephen Breyer embraced this misguided concept –– that the right to keep and bear arms is an enumerated, but non-fundamental, right that deserves a lesser degree of protection than the rest of the provisions of the Bill of Rights — in his McDonald dissent.

I counter that notion in this podcast:

Related thoughts from Ilya Somin here.

The Lieberman-Brown Bill Merely Updates Expatriation Law for the 21st Century

Stripping the citizenship of those who take up arms against the United States is not a controversial proposition. Indeed, under existing law, American citizenship can be taken away from any adult who, among other actions, makes a formal declaration of allegiance to a foreign state, serves in the armed forces of a foreign state if such armed forces are engaged in hostilities against the United States, or commits any act of treason against the United States. The Lieberman-Brown bill, which adds to that list the provision of material support to State Department-recognized terrorist organizations (most notably Al Qaeda) or actively engaging in hostilities against the United States, is thus not problematic on its face. It merely clarifies, in an age where America’s enemies aren’t necessarily other countries, that a person need not ally himself with a hostile “foreign state” to risk expatriation.

Still, the Terrorist Expatriation Act does raise concerns about how the new citizenship-stripping provisions would be applied. Expatriation is a serious remedy that is warranted only in the most serious cases — such as, indeed, treason or taking up arms against your own country. If and when the act becomes law, courts will maintain a high bar for what constitutes “material support” of terrorist organizations (such that it constitutes relinquishing U.S. nationality), and the subject of the expatriation action will — under existing law that will remain unchanged — have notice and opportunity to challenge the decision.

In short, this is neither a radical threat to civil liberties nor an ineffectual political stunt. Assuming the above constitutional protections remain in place, the expansion of federal expatriation law should be seen as a prudent, necessary, and uncontroversial measure that deals with the realities of the modern world.

Accountability for ‘Exigent Letter’ Abuse At Last?

It is more than three years since the Office of the Inspector General first brought public attention to the FBI’s systematic misuse of the National Security Letter statutes to issue fictitious “exigent letters” and obtain telecommunications records without due process. Nobody at the Bureau has been fined, or even disciplined, for  this systematic lawbreaking and the efforts to conceal it. But the bipartisan outrage expressed at a subcommittee hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this morning hints that Congress may be running out of patience—and looking for some highly-placed heads to roll. Just to refresh, Committee Chairman John Conyers summarized the main abuses in an opening statement:

The IG found that more than 700 times, such information was obtained about more than 2,000 phone numbers by so-called“exigent letters” from FBI personnel. In some cases, the IG concluded, FBI agents sent the letters even though they believed that factual information in the letters was false. For more than 3,500 phone numbers, the call information was extracted without even a letter, but instead by e‐mail, requests on a post‐it note, or “sneak peaks” of telephone company computer screens or other records…. In one case, the FBI actually obtained phone records of Washington Post and New York Times reporters and kept them in a database, leading to an IG conclusion of “serious abuse” of FBI authority and an FBI public apology.

It’s probably actually worse than that: Since these letters often requested a “community of interest” analysis for targeted numbers, the privacy of many people beyond the nominal targets may have been implicated—though it’s hard to be sure, since the IG report redacts almost all details about this CoI mapping.

And as Rep. Jerry Nadler pointed out, the IG report suggests a “clear pattern here of deliberate evasion,” rather than the innocent oversight the Bureau keeps pleading.  Both Nadler and the Republican ex-chair of the committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, expressed frustration at their sense that, when the FBI had failed to win legislative approval for all the powers on its wish list, it had simply ignored lawful process, seizing by fiat what Congress had refused to grant. Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, even declared that he felt “betrayed.” But we’ve heard similar rhetoric before. It was the following suggestion from Conyers (from my notes, but pretty near verbatim) that really raised an eyebrow:

There must be further investigation as to who and why and how somebody in the Federal Bureau of Investigation could invent a practice and have allowed it to have gone on for three consecutive years.  I propose and hope that this committee and its leadership will join me, because I think there may be grounds for removal of the general counsel of the FBI.

That would be Valerie Caproni, one of the hearing’s two witnesses, and an executive-level official whose dismissal would be the first hint of an administration response commensurate with the gravity of the violations that occurred. Caproni’s testimony, consistent with previous performances, was an awkward effort to simultaneously minimize the seriousness of FBI’s abuses—she is fond of saying “flawed” when le mot juste is “illegal”—and also to assure legislators that the Bureau was treating it with the utmost seriousness already. Sensenbrenner appeared unpersuaded, at one point barking in obvious irritation: “I don’t think you’re getting the message; will you get the message today?” The Republican also seemed to indirectly echo Conyers’ warning, declaring himself “not unsympathetic” to the incredulous chairman’s indictment of her office. Of course, the FBI has it’s own Office of Professional Responsibility which is supposed to be in charge of holding agents and officials accountable for malfeasance, but apparently the wheels there are still grinding along.

It’s also worth noting that Inspector General Glenn Fine, who also testified, specifically urged Congress to look into a secret memo issued in January by the Office of Legal Counsel, apparently deploying some novel legal theory to conclude that many of the call records obtained by the FBI were not covered by federal privacy statutes after all. This stood out just because my impression is that OIG usually limits itself to straight reporting and leaves it to Congress to judge what merits investigation, suggesting heightened concern about the potential scope of the ruling, despite FBI’s pledge not to avail itself of this novel legal logic without apprising its oversight committees. Alas, the details here are classified, but Caproni did at one point in her testimony conclude that “disclosure of approximately half of the records at issue was not forbidden by ECPA and/or was
connected to a clear emergency situation.”  There were 4,400 improperly obtained “records at issue” in the FBI’s internal review, of which about 150 were ultimately retained on the grounds that they would have qualified for the emergency exception in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  Since that tally didn’t include qualifying records for which legitimate process had nevertheless been issued at some point, the number of “real” emergencies is probably slightly higher, but that still suggests that the “half” Caproni alludes to are mostly in the “disclosure…not forbidden by ECPA” category.  Since ECPA is fairly comprehensive when it comes to telecom subscriber records—or at least, so we all thought until recently—we have to assume she means that these are the types of records the OLC opinion has removed from FISA’s protection. If those inferences are correct, and the new OLC exception covers nearly half of the call detail records FBI obtains, that would not constitute a “loophole” in federal electronic privacy law so much as its evisceration.

Of course, it’s possible that the specific nature of the exception would allay civil libertarian fears. What’s really intolerable in a democratic society is that we don’t know. Operational facts about specific investigations, and even specific investigatory techniques, are rightly classified. But an interpretation of a public statute so significant as to potentially halve its apparent protections cannot be kept secret without making a farce of the rule of law.

Scalia Can No Longer Call Himself an Originalist

As I blogged last week, the Supreme Court didn’t seem amenable to Privileges or Immunities Clause arguments in last week’s gun rights case, McDonald v. Chicago.  This is unfortunate because the alternative, extending the right to keep and bear arms via the Due Process Clause, continues a long-time deviation from constitutional text, history, and structure, and reinforces the idea that judges enforce only those rights they deem “fundamental” (whatever that means).

It was especially disconcerting to see Justice Antonin Scalia, the standard-bearer for originalism, give up on his own preferred method of interpretation – and for the sole reason that it was intellectually “easier” to use the “substantive due process” doctrine.

Josh Blackman and I have an op-ed in the Washington Examiner pointing out Scalia’s hypocrisy.  Here’s a choice excerpt:

Without the Privileges or Immunities Clause … the Court must continue extending the un-originalist version of substantive due process to protect the right to keep and bear arms. To give original meaning to the Second Amendment, it must ignore the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment!

Yet this is the line Scalia took last week: Instead of accepting the plain meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause—which uncontrovertibly protects the right to keep and bear arms—the justice chose a route that avoids disturbing a 140-year-old precedent rejected by legal scholars of all ideological stripes.

In 2008, Scalia wrote, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge-empowering philosophy.” But at the arguments in McDonald, he argued that while the Privileges or Immunities Clause “is the darling of the professoriate,” he would prefer to follow substantive due process, in which he has now “acquiesced,” “as much as [he] think[s it is] wrong.”

Put simply, if the opinion Scalia writes or joins matches his performance last week, he can no longer be described as an originalist (faint-hearted or otherwise).  A liberty-seeking world turns its weary eyes to Justice Clarence Thomas – who has expressed an openness to reviving the constitutional order the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to create – to convince his wayward colleague that the way to interpret legal text is to look to its original public meaning.

Read the whole thing.

Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers

I’ve been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy’s post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects.  I share Gene’s bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush’s longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House.  But I also think it’s worth stressing that the arguments being offered – both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally – aren’t very persuasive even if we suppose that they’re not politically motivated.

Two caveats.  First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won’t always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing.   Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we’ll need to use Abdulmutallab’s statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don’t seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.

Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don’t seem to share this concern that they won’t be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it’s consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to “lawyer up” – as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it – explicitly concluding that “the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent.”

Nor, contra the popular narrative, does it appear to have interfered in the Abdulmutallab case.  Republicans leapt to construe sketchy early reports as implying that the failed bomber had been talking to investigators, then clammed up upon being read his Miranda rights and provided with counsel. But that turns out to have gotten the order of events wrong. In reality, Abdulmutallab was initially talkative – perhaps the shock of having set off an incendiary device in his pants overrode his training – but then ceased cooperating before being Mirandizied. Rather, it was the urging of his family members that appears to have been crucial in securing his full cooperation – family members whose assistance would doubtless have been far more difficult to secure without assurances that he would be treated humanely and fairly within the criminal justice system. It’s possible, one supposes, that the emo terrorist might have broken still more rapidly in military custody, but it seems odd to criticize the judgment of the intelligence professionals directly involved with the case, given that their approach has manifestly worked, on the basis of mere speculation about the superior effectiveness of an alternative approach.

Stepping back from this specific case, there seem to be strong reasons to favor recourse to the criminal systems in the absence of some extraordinarily compelling justification for departing from that rule in particular cases. Perhaps most obviously, few terror suspects are quite so self-evidently guilty as Abdulmutallab, and so framing the question of their treatment as one of the due process rights afforded “terrorists” begs the question. The mantra of those who prefer defaulting to military trial is that “we are at war” – but this is an analytically unhelpful observation.  We’re engaged in a series of loosely connected conflicts, some of which look pretty much like conventional wars, some of which don’t. This blanket observation tells us nothing about which set of tools is likely to be most effective in a particular case or class of cases – any more than it answers the question of which battlefield tactics will best achieve a strategic goal.

For the most part, the insistent invocation of the fact that “we’re at war” seems to be a kind of shibboleth deployed by people who want to signal that they are Very, Very Serious about national security without engaging in serious thought about national security. If it came without costs, I would be loath to begrudge them this little self-esteem boosting ritual. But conflict with terrorists is, by definition, a symbolic conflict, because terrorism is first and foremost a symbolic act. As Fawaz Gerges documents in his important book The Far Enemy, jihadis had traditionally been primarily concerned with the fight to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular.  The controversial – and even among radical Islamists,quite unpopular – decision to strike “the Far Enemy” in the United States was not motivated by some blind bloodlust, or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Rather, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West could revive flagging jihadi movement, galvanize the ummah, and (crucially) enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda, perceived within jihadi circles as a fairly marginal organization.

This has largely backfired. But it’s important to always bear in mind that attacks on the United States, especially by sensational methods like airplane bombings, are for terror groups essentially PR stunts whose value is ultimately instrumental. They don’t do it for the sheer love of blowing up planes; they do it as a means of establishing their own domestic credibility vis a vis more locally-focused Islamist groups (violent and peaceful) with whom they are competing for recruits. While our response to these attempts will often necessarily have some military component, there is no reason to bolster their outreach efforts by making a big public show of treating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as tantamount to a belligerent foreign state.  Better, when it’s compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals, to treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs.

Using Guns to Protect Liberty

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in McDonald v. Chicago – the Second Amendment case with implications far beyond gun rights.  The Court is quite likely to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states and thereby invalidate the Chicago handgun ban at issue, but the way in which it does so could revolutionize constitutional law.

In response to the oppression of freed slaves and abolitionists in southern and border states after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters sought to protect individual rights from infringement by state and local governments.  The amendment’s Due Process Clause and Privileges or Immunities Clause provided overlapping but distinct protections for these rights.  The Court decided in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases, however, that the Privileges or Immunities Clause only protected Americans’ rights as national, not state, citizens.  This reactionary holding eviscerated the clause, rendering it powerless to protect individual rights from state interference.

McDonald provides the Court an opportunity to overturn the Slaughter-House Cases and finally restore the Privileges or Immunities Clause to its proper role as a check against government intrusion on individual rights.  Doing so would secure Americans’ natural rights, such as the freedom of contract and the right to earn an honest living, without enabling judges to invent constitutional rights to health care or welfare payments.  For a more detailed discussion of McDonald’s potential implications, and how the Court should rule, see my recent op-ed here.

I will also be participating in several public events this week on McDonald, the Fourteenth Amendment, and firearm regulation.  Today at 4:00 p.m., I will be speaking at a Cato policy forum, which will be broadcast live on C-SPAN and which you may watch online here.  Tomorrow at 3:30 p.m., I will participate in a post-argument discussion of McDonald at the Georgetown University Law Center, which event is cosponsored by the Federalist Society and the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy (where Josh Blackman and I recently published a lengthy article on the subject).  And on Wednesday at noon, I will be participating in a Cato Capitol Hill briefing on McDonald and the future of gun rights at the Rayburn House Office Building, room B-340 (more information here).

NRA Shoots Itself in the Foot

I previously blogged about the NRA’s misbegotten motion, which the Supreme Court granted, to carve 10 minutes of oral argument time away from the petitioners in McDonald v. Chicago.  Essentially, there was no discernable reason for the motion other than to ensure that the NRA could claim some credit for the eventual victory, and thus boost its fundraising.

Well, having argued that petitioners’ counsel Alan Gura insufficiently covered the argument that the Second Amendment should be “incorporated” against the states via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, the NRA has now filed a brief that fails even to reference the four biggest cases regarding incorporation and substantive due process.  That is, the NRA reply brief contains no mention of Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), Benton v. Maryland (1969), Duncan v. Louisiana (1968), or Palko v. Connecticut (1937).  (The NRA did cite those cases in its opening brief.)  What is more, it also lacks a discussion of Judge O’Scannlain’s magisterial Ninth Circuit opinion in Nordyke v. King (2009), which the Supreme Court might as well cut and paste regardless of which constitutional provision it uses to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states!

I should add that the petitioners’ reply brief does cite all of those aforementioned cases (as well as the “Keeping Pandora’s Box Sealed” law review article I co-authored with Josh Blackman).  I leave it to the reader to determine whether it is Alan Gura or the NRA who is better positioned to argue substantive due process – or any other part of the McDonald case.

For more on the rift between the McDonald petitioners and the NRA, see this story in today’s Washington Post (in which I’m quoted, full disclosure, after a lengthy interview I gave the reporter last week).

(Full disclosure again: Alan Gura is a friend of mine and of Cato, and I suppose I should also say that I’ve participated in NRA-sponsored events in the past.)