Tag: john yoo

White House: ‘We Have Never Been at War in Northafrica!’

Pardon the somewhat trite Orwell reference in the title to this post. But sometimes this administration’s wordgames make it hard to resist invoking our keenest analyst of politics and the English language.

Some months ago, the Obama team began telling us that the Libyan War wasn’t a war—it was a “kinetic military action.” (Go here to watch Defense Secretary Robert Gates try—and fail—to maintain a straight face selling that line to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes).

In April, the president’s Office of Legal Counsel made the (bogus) argument that the president hadn’t violated the War Powers Resolution because the WPR recognized his authority to engage in hostilities for at least 60 days without congressional approval.  We’re now coming up on 90.

Yesterday, in response to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) request, the president issued a new explanation for why he isn’t in violation of the WPR, which requires the president to terminate US engagement in “hostilities” after 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization. And it turns out that, per Obama, not only is the Libyan War not a “war,” what we’re doing in Libya—supporting, coordinating, and carrying out attacks—doesn’t even rise to the level of “hostilities.”

The president’s report states that he hasn’t violated the WPR, because “U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision”:  they don’t “involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof.”

As Jack Goldsmith explains, “The Administration argues that once it starts firing missiles from drones it is no longer in ‘hostilities’ because U.S. troops suffer no danger of return fire.”  ”The implications here,” Goldsmith notes, “in a world of increasingly remote weapons, are large.”

I’ll say: this is an extraordinary argument: The president can rain down destruction via cruise missiles and robot death kites anywhere in the world. But unless an American airman might get hurt, we’re not engaged in “hostilities.”

Put aside the strange argument that acts of war don’t rise to the level of “hostilities.” Given that outrage over the illegal bombing of Cambodia was part of the backdrop to the WPR’s passage, it would have been pretty strange if the Resolution’s drafters thought presidential warmaking was A-OK, so long as you did it from a great height.

As legal arguments go, this is the national security law equivalent of the Clinton perjury defense. It’s the type of thing that gives lawyers an even worse name. Or maybe law professors, because, speaking of Bill Clinton, Obama’s the second former constitutional law professor in a row to violate the War Powers Resolution.

And yet, Obama continues to insist he’s in full compliance with the WPR, and he has no objection to the resolution on constitutional grounds.

God help me, I think I just felt a twinge of nostalgia for John Yoo.  Say what you will about the legal architect of Bush’s “Terror Presidency,” at least he had the courage of his bizarre convictions. When the statutes couldn’t be tortured into complete submission, Yoo would make the case that—whatever the law said—the president had the constitutional power to do as he pleased.  That’s clearly what Obama believes as well, but you’re not going to catch him admitting it.

“To Declare [Kinetic Military Action]”

Recently, I’ve been blogging over at the Washington Examiner’s lively “Beltway Confidential” site, mostly on the subject of congressional war powers and President Obama’s Libyan adventure. Today’s post, “Obama Makes ‘Kinetic Military Action’ on the English Language” has a little fun with the administration’s wordgames and the legal rationales behind them. Other posts and a column on the subject are here, here, and here.

Today also brings a pair of columns–in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, respectively–from conservative luminaries defending the notion that Obama has the constitutional power to bomb Libya without congressional authorization. Yoo, the legal architect of George W. Bush’s Terror Presidency, chides Tea Party Republicans like Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Justin Amash of Michigan for questioning Obama’s authority to launch a nondefensive war:

Their praiseworthy opposition to the growth of federal powers at home misleads them to resist Washington’s indispensable role abroad. They mistakenly read the 18th-century constitutional text through a modern lens—for example, understanding “declare war” to mean “start war.” When the Constitution was written, a declaration of war served diplomatic notice about a change in legal relations between nations. It had little to do with launching hostilities. In the century before the Constitution, for example, Great Britain fought numerous major conflicts but declared war only once beforehand.

Similarly, in the Post, David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey write:

As commander in chief, the president has the authority to determine when and how U.S. forces are used…. When the Constitution was adopted, the power to “declare war” was not equivalent to permitting the use of military force.

The president certainly can’t derive the authority to bomb Libya from the commander-in-chief clause. As Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, that provision merely indicates that the president is the “first General and admiral” of US military forces. Important as they are, generals and admirals don’t get to decide whether and with whom we go to war.

It’s more common for presidentialists to combine a broad reading of Article II, sec. 1’s “executive Power” with an exceptionally narrow interpretation of Article I, sec. 8’s congressional power “to declare War,” to conclude that the president can start wars, leaving it up to Congress to make it official if they so choose.

One problem with that view is that virtually no one from the Founding Generation seems to have understood the clause in that way. For example, James Wilson told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention that ‘‘this system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power in declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.’’ Pierce Butler, like Wilson, had been a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, and–to the dismay of some delegates–had actually argued for vesting the power to go to war in the president. Yet during the ratification debates, Butler assured the South Carolina legislature that the proposed constitution prevented the president from starting wars: ‘‘Some gentlemen [i.e., Butler himself] were inclined to give this power to the President; but it was objected to, as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished to promote her destruction.’’

As Professor Michael Ramsey puts it:

Every major figure from the founding era who commented on the matter said that the Constitution gave Congress the exclusive power to commit the nation to hostilities. Notably, this included not only people with reservations about presidential power, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but also strong advocates of the President’s prerogatives, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

“How could this be, though,” Ramsey asks, “if Congress has only the power to ‘declare War’, which we may think refers to making a (now-outmoded) formal announcement? Why can’t the President begin a war informally, merely by ordering an attack, without a declaration?” The answer:

…is that in founding-era terminology war could be “declared” either by formal announcement or by military action initiating hostilities. John Locke’s classic Two Treatises of Government from the late 17th century referred to “declar[ing] by word or action.” Blackstone and Vattel, two of the 18th century legal writers most influential in America, also used “declare” in this way…. Johnson’s dictionary gave as one definition of “declare” to “shew in open view” – which, applied to warfare, would obviously encompass military attacks…. Thus in 18th century terms initiating an attack was as much “to declare war” as was making a formal announcement; Congress’ Article I, Section 8 power is not narrowly about issuing formal announcements, but broadly about authorizing the sorts of actions that begin war.

Professor Ramsey lays out the argument in greater detail in his book The Constitution’s Text in Foreign Affairs, and in his (for my money) devastating 2002 rebuttal of Yoo [JSTOR] in the University of Chicago Law Review. Ramsey has further thoughts on the poverty of the argument from “past practice” here as does GMU law professor and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin here.

One last point. While this doesn’t speak directly to the original meaning of the “Declare War” clause, I think it’s worth noting nonetheless:

Like Yoo, Rivkin, and Casey, I’m convinced that Obamacare’s individual mandate is unconstitutional. But consider how that view fits with their other views on federal power. They’ve argued, among other things, that the president can order up bombing raids without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress. As Yoo puts it, the president has the “right to start wars”, for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all, presumably. If the president suspects you’re a terrorist, he doesn’t need a warrant to tap your phone, and, right here in America, he can send soldiers to search your house without offending the Fourth Amendment. He can (according to Yoo, at least) ignore the federal statute prohibiting torture, and he can lock you up for the duration of the war on terror (forever?) without charges.

But there is one thing that he can never, ever do: he cannot penalize you for failure to purchase health insurance. Ours is a government of limited powers, you see.

Taken all in all, doesn’t that constitutional vision strike you as… strange?

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 John Yoo Theory of Gun Control

A modest proposal: Suppose that we decide to streamline our inefficient criminal justice system by treating people under suspicion of involvement with violent crime—whether or not they’ve been arrested, charged, or even informed of this suspicion—as equivalent to convicted felons.  Suppose, then, that we permit them to be stripped of certain constitutionally protected rights at the discretion of the executive branch.

Outrageous?  Some depraved brainchild of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel?  Actually, it’s the editorial position of The New York Times:

Under federal law, people who pose a heightened risk of violence cannot buy or own firearms, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and several other categories. Suspected terrorist is not one them.

Individuals on the government’s terrorist watch list can be barred from boarding airplanes, but not from purchasing high-powered guns or explosives. Bipartisan legislation in both houses of Congress would end this ridiculous loophole, commonly known as the “terror gap.

The Times does note, before dismissing the fact with the wave of a hand, that “thousands” of people have been found to be on the list improperly.  But let’s linger a bit longer over this.  The terrorist watch list, at last count, boasted about a million entries.  When you eliminate variant spellings and duplicate entries—and rest assured that this would be another enormous source of problems—there are about 400,000 unique individuals on the list, of whom some 20,000 are Americans. Thousands more are nominated for inclusion on the list each week.

Employ, for a moment, some common sense and arithmetic. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 people. (I should add: 19 people armed with box cutters.) If even one percent of those 20,000 were truly intent on staging violent domestic attacks, doesn’t it seem likely we would have noticed? To be sure, some small subset of them really are serious threats. They are probably the very people the government is actively investigating, and would prefer not to tip off by, say, having their attempted gun purchases denied.

There’s also, of course, an almost heartwarming faith in formal process here.  I can imagine circumstances where blocking someone at a point of sale might prevent bloodshed—some guy in the heat of passion or the haze of liquor acting on impulse to settle a score. But trained and fanatically committed terrorists, backed by the resources of an international network, who typically spend months or even years plotting significant operations? Are they serious? How does that conversation go? “No, no, I’m sorry Osama.  Yes, the Wal-Mart clerk, she would not sell us a pistol! I know, and after Ayman went to all that trouble making our fake passports by hand. I was disappointed too.  But I guess we’d better scrap the plan and head back to Yemen.”

What the other categories of “risky” people the Times lists have in common is  that they’ve been determined to be dangerous by a court, which is normally the process by which we go about depriving people of their rights. It seems perverse to depart from that principle precisely for the category of suspects least likely to be hampered by these sorts of limitations.

John Yoo on Civilian Trials for Terrorism Cases

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published an article by John Yoo that criticized the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and several of his fellow Guantanamo prisoners in civilian court.  Yoo makes too many claims for me to respond to in a blog post, but let me address a few.

According to Yoo, “The treatment of the 9/11 attacks as a criminal matter rather than an act of war will cripple American efforts to fight terrorism.  It is in effect a declaration that this nation is no longer at war.”  That is an odd thing to say for several reasons.  First, it is all over the news: We are still very much at war.  Second, even if Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, would the United States really be “crippled” in the fight against bin Laden?  ”Crippled”  suggests the U.S. is on the verge of joining Costa Rica or Belize in terms of our military strength.  Farfetched.  Third, the Bush administration also treated the 9/11 attacks as a criminal matter when it indicted and prosecuted Zacarias Moussaoui in civilian court.  Yoo seems to think that that call was mistaken, but did it ”cripple” the U.S.?  Did the Bush administration, in effect, declare that the U.S. was “no longer at war”?  Of course not.  So why does Yoo make that claim now?  Odd.

Next, Yoo complains that by bringing KSM to New York for a civilian trial, the prisoner will get to “enjoy the benefits and rights that the Constitution accords to citizens and resident aliens.”  This is another odd statement because the benefits of a civilian trial (public trial, jury trial, calling witnesses, confronting adverse witnesses, etc) are not limited to citizens and resident aliens.  After all, Asian tourists and illegal immigrants from Mexico, to take two examples, are not “citizens” or “resident aliens.”  If a federal prosecutor were to accuse them of a crime, they would get a trial in civilian court.  A claim that the government could deny, say, a nonresident alien from China a civilian trial would be totally at odds with American constitutional law.  Yoo may disagree with that law, but if he does, he should have made that clear because he left a misleading impression.

Third, Yoo calls the Moussaoui trial a “circus” because it provided Moussaoui with a “platform to air his anti-American tirades.”  Well, to start, just because Yoo calls a trial a “circus” does not make it so.  The federal judge in the Moussaoui case did what we would expect a good American judge to do–that is, give the person who is accused of the crime a fair opportunity to speak and to offer a defense.   At the same time, the  judge must maintain order in the courtroom and anyone who becomes disruptive (including the accused) can be removed.  The potential problem of  a “tirade” is nothing new and is not, of course, limited to persons who share bin Laden’s twisted worldview.  Some recent examples include the Unabomber and the shooter at the Holocaust museum.  In short, it is a weak argument to critique our system of civilian trials because the defendant may want to insist on saying something that is unpopular, unpleasant, or incoherent.  And, at the time of sentencing, a trial judge can respond, as Judge William Young did when he sentenced Richard Reid to life behind bars.

For more on the subject of military commissions, go here and here.  For more on John Yoo, go here and here.