Tag: executive power

The Non-Defense of DOMA

The Obama Administration’s decision to stop defending DOMA in the courts has provoked some widespread commentary. Jim Burroway hints that Obama’s strategy here is both deep and cynical. Obama’s locked in a losing fight with Republicans over the budget, because Americans really do want to cut federal spending. This remains true even if, notoriously, nearly the only specific program they want to cut is our negligible foreign aid.

The mood is anti-spending, and it’s just possible that a government shutdown scares Obama even more than it scares the Republicans. The remedy? Change the subject. Make Republicans in Congress defend their stance on gay marriage, which is so not the discussion they’d like to be having.

It could be one of the first instances in which gay marriage counts as a wedge issue against Republicans, rather than for them. Opposing same-sex marriage appeals strongly to a smallish base. To the center, the whole subject is distasteful either way, and they don’t mind if Obama drops it. Finally, more and more people just find the conservatives embarrassing here. Obama sees no need to do their dirty work for them, especially when the work really is that dirty.

Meanwhile, Orin Kerr is worried about executive power:

By taking that position, the Obama Administration has moved the goalposts of the usual role of the Executive branch in defending statutes. Instead of requiring DOJ to defend the constitutionality of all federal statutes if it has a reasonable basis to do so, the new approach invests within DOJ a power to conduct an independent constitutional review of the issues, to decide the main issues in the case — in this case, the degree of scrutiny for gay rights issues — and then, upon deciding the main issue, to decide if there is a reasonable basis for arguing the other side. If you take that view, the Executive Branch essentially has the power to decide what legislation it will defend based on whatever views of the Constitution are popular or associated with that Administration. It changes the role of the Executive branch in defending litigation from the traditional dutiful servant of Congress to major institutional player with a great deal of discretion.

If that approach becomes widely adopted, then it would seem to bring a considerable power shift to the Executive Branch. Here’s what I fear will happen. If Congress passes legislation on a largely party-line vote, the losing side just has to fashion some constitutional theories for why the legislation is unconstitutional and then wait for its side to win the Presidency. As soon as its side wins the Presidency, activists on its side can file constitutional challenges based on the theories; the Executive branch can adopt the theories and conclude that, based on the theories, the legislation is unconstitutional; and then the challenges to the legislation will go undefended. Winning the Presidency will come with a great deal of power to decide what legislation to defend, increasing Executive branch power at the expense of Congress’s power. Again, it will be a power grab disguised as academic constitutional interpretation.

Liberals: If you think declining to defend DOMA is the right decision, how will you feel when a Republican administration declines to defend in a school prayer case? Or an abortion case? Or on Obamacare itself?

There are two very, very distinct issues here. One concerns gays and lesbians. The other concerns the proper relationship among the three branches of the federal government. One is about policy; the other is about procedure. Deciding a procedural question based on what it means for a one-time policy outcome is just bad governance. The questions we should be asking are – How much power would this really give the president? Is this a particularly new power? (Arguably it’s not.) And in any case, are we comfortable with the president having it, even if he or she has radically different views about policy?

When we look at it that way, there’s a near-perfect parallel to the perennial debate over the filibuster. Everyone hates it when they’re in the majority. Everyone loves it when they’re in the minority. Politics really is the mind-killer.

Targeted Killing of U.S. Citizen a State Secret?

That’s the claim the Obama administration made in court. As Glenn Greenwald puts it:

[W]hat’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”:  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.

Italics in the original. My colleagues Gene Healy and Nat Hentoff have expressed concerns about targeted killings. Charlie Savage wrote a good piece on this that highlights how even the most ardent defenders of executive power may blush at this broad claim of power.

The government’s increasing use of the state secrets doctrine to shield its actions from judicial review has been contentious. Some officials have argued that invoking it in the Awlaki matter, about which so much is already public, would risk a backlash. David Rivkin, a lawyer in the White House of President George H. W. Bush, echoed that concern.

“I’m a huge fan of executive power, but if someone came up to you and said the government wants to target you and you can’t even talk about it in court to try to stop it, that’s too harsh even for me,” he said.

In fairness, Rivkin would defend the administration’s claim of power on other grounds – that targeting is a “political question” for the elected branches of government – but this approach seems to have lost out because it invites the judiciary to determine whether the U.S. is at war in Yemen.

Amending the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress after 9/11 is long overdue. What groups are we truly at war with, where does the line between war and peace sit, who can we detain and kill, and what process is owed before a citizen may be targeted with lethal force? Questions of war are political in nature, and if we don’t know the answers, it is Congress’ role to step in and provide them.

Did Kagan Have a “Disparate Impact” on Military Recruiters?

Perhaps you remember the case of Ricci v. DiStefano, so much discussed during Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation process?   To recap briefly: The city of New Haven had used a written test to determine which of its local firefighters would be considered for promotions. When the tests came back, it turned out that the high scorers were overwhelmingly Caucasian, and so the city—fearing a lawsuit from black and Latino firefighters who hadn’t made the cut—scrapped the results. Not, mind you, because the test was in any way discriminatory on its face, but because federal law frowns on any test that has a “disparate impact” on minority groups unless it can be shown to be both closely related to the requirements of the job and less uneven in its effects than comparable alternatives. A number of the white firefighters then sued, claiming that it was discriminatory to discard the test after the fact just because the high scorers were too pale.  Bracket the question of how Sotomayor, as a circuit court judge, should have ruled.  Clearly as a policy question, most conservatives seemed disposed to side with the firefighters, and in general conservatives have been highly skeptical of “disparate impact” standards.  If the standards are facially neutral, and were not chosen with any pernicious intent (the argument runs), we should let the chips fall where they may. Sounds fairly compelling to me.

So it’s a little odd to see folks like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol casually talk about Elena Kagan’s “discrimination against the military” during her tenure as dean of Harvard Law School. All Kagan did, after all, was enforce Harvard’s preexisting rule requiring firms wishing to recruit through the school’s Office of Career Services to certify that they did not discriminate by sexual orientation. (This is not the same, incidentally, as “banning recruiters from campus”—the military did continue to recruit on campus via a student group.) It was a neutral rule that applied to any company that wished to avail itself of the Office of Career Service’s assistance, from which the military would have required a special exemption.  Kristol clearly didn’t think much of the logic of “disparate impact” in the Ricci case, so why is he so quick to adopt it here? There are many good reasons to be worried about Kagan, not least her apparent fondness for an expansive conception of executive power, but a commitment to even-handed application of the rules is not among them.

State Secrets, Courts, and NSA’s Illegal Wiretapping

As Tim Lynch notes, Judge Vaughn Walker has ruled in favor of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation—unique among the many litigants who have tried to challenge the Bush-era program of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency because they actually had evidence, in the form of a document accidentally delivered to foundation lawyers by the government itself, that their personnel had been targeted for eavesdropping.

Other efforts to get a court to review the program’s legality had been caught in a kind of catch-22: Plaintiffs who merely feared that their calls might be subject to NSA filtering and interception lacked standing to sue, because they couldn’t show a specific, concrete injury resulting from the program.

But, of course, information about exactly who has been wiretapped is a closely guarded state secret. So closely guarded, in fact, that the Justice Department was able to force the return of the document that exposed the wiretapping of Al-Haramain, and then get it barred from the court’s consideration as a “secret” even after it had been disclosed. (Contrast, incidentally, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on individual privacy rights, which often denies any legitimate expectation of privacy in information once revealed to a third party.) Al-Haramain finally prevailed because they were ultimately able to assemble evidence from the public record showing they’d been wiretapped, and the government declined to produce anything resembling a warrant for that surveillance.

If you read over the actual opinion, however it may seem a little anticlimactic—as though something is missing. The ruling concludes that there’s prima facie evidence that Al-Haramain and their lawyers were wiretapped, that the government has failed to produce a warrant, and that this violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But of course, there was never any question about that. Not even the most strident apologists for the NSA program denied that it contravened FISA; rather, they offered a series of rationalizations for why the president was entitled to disregard a federal statute.

There was the John Yoo argument that the president essentially becomes omnipotent during wartime, and that if we can shoot Taliban on a foreign battlefield, surely we can wiretap Americans at home if they seem vaguely Taliban-ish. Even under Bush, the Office of Legal Counsel soon backed away from such… creative… lines of argument. Instead, they relied on the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda, claiming it had implicitly created a loophole in the FISA law. It was David Kris, now head of DOJ’s National Security Division, who most decisively blew that one out of the water, concluding that it was “essentially impossible” to sustain the government’s reading of the AUMF.

Yet you’ll note that none of these issues arise in Walker’s opinion, because the DOJ, in effect, refused to play. They resisted the court at every step, insisting that a program discussed at length on the front pages of newspapers for years now was so very secret that no aspect of it could be discussed even in a closed setting. They continued to insist on this in the face of repeated court rulings to the contrary. So while Al-Haramain has prevailed, there’s no ruling on the validity of any of those arguments. That’s why I think Marcy Wheeler is probably correct when she predicts that the government will simply take its lumps and pay damages rather than risk an appeal. For one, while Obama administration has been happy to invoke state secrecy as vigorously as its predecessor, it would obviously be somewhat embarrassing for Obama’s DOJ to parrot Bush’s substantive claims of near-limitless executive power. Perhaps more to the point, though, some of those legal arguments may still be operative in secret OLC memos. The FISA Amendments Act aimed to put the unlawful Bush program under court supervision, and even reasserted FISA’s language establishing it as the “exclusive means” for electronic surveillance, which would seem to drive a final stake in the heart of any argument based on the AUMF. But we ultimately don’t know what legal rationales they still consider operative, and it would surely be awkward to have an appellate court knock the legs out from under some of these secret memoranda.

None of this is to deny that the ruling is a big deal—if nothing else because it suggests that the government does not enjoy total carte blanche to shield lawbreaking from review with broad, bald assertions of privilege. But I also know that civil libertarians had hoped that the courts might be the only path to a more full accounting of—and accountability for—the domestic spying program. If the upshot of this is simply that the government must pay a few tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, it’s hard not to see the victory as something of a disappointment.

The Great Writ

The BBC has put together an interesting documentary on the writ of habeas corpus, a legal concept most people have heard of, but too few understand and appreciate. You can stream it here.

We should not forget that President Bush and the coterie of lawyers around him tried to advance a theory of executive power that would have made the writ of habeas corpus worthless.  I hasten to add that President Obama has not really disavowed Bush’s claims and so the danger to the great writ has not passed just because Bush has left office.

Related video clip of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez here.  Related Cato work here, here,  and here.

The FISA Amendments: Behind the Scenes

I’ve been poring over the trove of documents the Electronic Frontier Foundation has obtained detailing the long process by which the FISA Amendments Act—which substantially expanded executive power to conduct sweeping surveillance with little oversight—was hammered out between Hill staffers and lawyers at the Department of Justice and intelligence agencies. The really interesting stuff, of course, is mostly redacted, and I’m only partway though the stacks, but there are a few interesting tidbits so far.

As Wired has already reported, one e-mail shows Bush officials feared that if the attorney general was given too much discretion over retroactive immunity for telecoms that aided in warrantless wiretapping, the next administration might refuse to provide it.

A couple other things stuck out for me. First, while it’s possible they’ve been released before and simply not crossed my desk, there are a series of position papers — so rife with  underlining that they look like some breathless magazine subscription pitch — circulated to Congress explaining the Bush administration’s opposition to various proposed amendments to the FAA. Among these was a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) that would have barred “bulk collection” of international traffic and required that the broad new intelligence authorizations specify (though not necessarily by name) individual targets. The idea here was that if there were particular suspected terrorists (for instance) being monitored overseas, it would be fine to keep monitoring their communications if they began talking with Americans without pausing to get a full-blown warrant — but you didn’t want to give NSA carte blanche to just indiscriminately sweep in traffic between the U.S. and anyone abroad. The position paper included in these documents is more explicit than the others that I’ve seen about the motive for objecting to the bulk collection amendment. Which was, predictably, that they wanted to do bulk collection:

  • It also would prevent the intelligence community from conducting the types of intelligence collection necessary to track terrorits and develop new targets.
  • For example, this amendment could prevent the intelligence community from targeting a particular group of buildings or a geographic area abroad to collect foreign intelligence prior to operations by our armed forces.

So to be clear: Contra the rhetoric we heard at the time, the concern was not simply that NSA would be able to keep monitoring a suspected terrorist when he began calling up Americans. It was to permit the “targeting” of entire regions, scooping all communications between the United States and the chosen area.

One other exchange at least raises an eyebrow.  If you were following the battle in Congress at the time, you may recall that there was a period when the stopgap Protect America Act had expired — though surveillance authorized pursuant to the law could continue for many months — and before Congress approved the FAA. A week into that period, on February 22, 2008, the attorney general and director of national intelligence sent a letter warning Congress that they were now losing intelligence because providers were refusing to comply with new requests under existing PAA authorizations. A day later, they had to roll that back, and some of the correspondence from the EFF FOIA record makes clear that there was an issue with a single recalcitrant provider who decided to go along shortly after the letter was sent.

But there’s another wrinkle. A week prior to this, just before the PAA was set to expire, Jeremy Bash, the chief counsel for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent an email to “Ken and Ben,” about a recent press conference call. It’s clear from context that he’s writing to Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein and General Counsel for the Director of National Intelligence Ben Powell about this press call, where both men fairly clearly suggest that telecoms are balking for fear that they’ll no longer be immune from liability for participation in PAA surveillance after the statute lapses. Bash wants to confirm whether they really said that “private sector entities have refused to comply with PAA certifications because they were concerned that the law was temporary.” In particular, he wants to know whether this is actually true, because “the briefs I read provided a very different rationale.”  In other words, Bash — who we know was cleared for the most sensitive information about NSA surveillance — was aware of some service providers being reluctant to comply with “new taskings” under the law, but not because of the looming expiration of the statute. One of his correspondents — whether Wainstein or Powell is unclear — shoots back denying having said any such thing (read the transcript yourself) and concluding with a terse:

Not addressing what is in fact the situation on both those issues (compliance and threat to halt) on this email.

In other words, the actual compliance issues they were encountering would have to be discussed over a more secure channel. If the issue wasn’t the expiration, though, what would the issue have been? The obvious alternative possibility is that NSA (or another agency) was attempting to get them to carry out surveillance that they thought might fall outside the scope of either the PAA or a particular authorization. Given how sweeping these were, that should certainly give us pause. It should also raise some questions as to whether, even before that one holdout fell into compliance, the warning letter from the AG and the DNI was misleading. Was there really ever a “gap” resulting from the statute’s sunset, or was it a matter of telecoms balking at an attempt by the intelligence community to stretch the bounds of their legal authority? The latter would certainly fit a pattern we saw again and again under the Bush administration: break the law, inducing a legal crisis, then threaten bloody mayhem if the unlawful program is forced to abruptly halt — at which point a nervous Congress grants its blessing.

The Real Story Behind the Chrysler Bankruptcy

If you worry about the abuse of executive power and declining respect among elected officials for the rule of law, you should watch this eloquent illumination of what really went down in the Chrysler bankruptcy earlier this year. The speaker is Richard Mourdock, Treasurer of the state of Indiana. The setting is a Cato Institute policy forum on October 15 about the “sordid details of the Bush/Obama auto industry intervention.”

As state treasurer, Mourdock is the person responsible for investment decisions concerning Indiana’s state employee pension funds, some of which owned a small share of Chrysler’s $6.9 billion in secured debt and some of which opposed the administration’s offer of $.29 on the dollar for that debt. Though these small secured holders were publicly castigated by President Obama as “unpatriotic” and unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good, Mourdock led the effort to stop the “sale” of Chrysler all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mourdock’s presentation gives a flavor for the tactics employed by the  Obama administration to “encourage” senior, priority creditors to back off their claims so that chosen parties could take priority—tactics that included backroom reminders that some of those creditors had received and might seek more TARP funding, threats of bringing the full weight and measure of the White House press office to bear down on dissenters, public condemnation, and other forms of arm-twisting most Americans would find unseemly for a U.S. presidential administration.

At the Cato event, Mr. Mourdock was joined by University of Pennsylvania Law School professor and corporate law expert David Skeel, who demonstrated quite clearly that the “sale” of Chrysler, as orchestrated by the Obama administration under cover of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, was indeed a sham sale. Skeel’s presentation begins at 20:15 of this video.

If you want to have a better sense of what’s going on in Washington (or to affirm your worries), I recommend you watch Mourdock here, listen to Mourdock here, read the Indiana Pensioners’ petition for Writ of Certiorari (appeal to the Supreme Court), and read the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in support of the Indiana pensioners here.