Tag: Supreme Court

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.

On ObamaCare, Don’t Put Your Faith in the Courts

Now that the Obama health plan is law, more than a dozen states are asserting that Congress has exceeded its Commerce Clause power in imposing a mandate on individuals to purchase health insurance from private companies. No doubt, individual citizens will challenge the individual mandate on their own behalf.

States are also asserting that the threat to withhold all Medicaid payments if the states do not set up health insurance exchanges and enact other regulations amounts to coercion and unconstitutional commandeering of states by the federal government.

No one who opposes ObamaCare should put their faith in the Supreme Court to strike down an act of Congress, no matter how unprecedented and unconstitutional it may be. Nor should those who support ObamaCare be confident that the Supreme Court will uphold these provisions.

Legal challenges cannot take the place of political action. The Court hates to strike down popular legislation, but if the legislation is unpopular, one or both houses of Congress have changed parties and only a filibuster or presidential veto is preventing repeal, then the Court may feel more comfortable upholding the Constitution.

Playing Chicken Again

As I wrote in this post, Senators McCain and Lieberman proposed a broad piece of anti-terrorism legislation. The Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010 would use military detention to incapacitate suspected domestic terrorists, including American citizens. This is a sea change in counterterrorism policy and a break from American principles that mandate a day in court.

This bill is a bad idea for several reasons. First, for the points that I made in my previous post, the civilian criminal justice system successfully incapacitates domestic terrorists. Our laws are built to do that – it’s the international nature of al Qaeda and the necessity of military force in the expeditionary conflicts we are fighting that make things different. Second, I doubt that this policy will be seen as a bonanza for domestic counterterrorism, and the agencies responsible tasked with using military detention won’t actually have much use for it. Third, and most importantly, detaining American citizens minus a suspension of habeas is unconstitutional and will be held so in court.

The policy prescribed under this bill is to direct anyone apprehended and suspected of terrorism into military custody for their initial interrogation. The bill bars them from being read Miranda rights, directs a high-value detainee interrogation group to determine whether or not they fit the bill as an unprivileged enemy belligerent (Military Commissions Act 2009 language for unlawful enemy combatant), and further directs authorities to submit this information to Congress. Anyone designated as an enemy belligerent can be detained until the cessation of hostilities, which amounts to whenever Congress says that the war on terrorism is over.

The kicker is that aliens detained domestically under this system must be tried by a military commission. Citizens cannot be tried by military commissions, and the jurisdictional language in the Military Commissions Act (MCA) reflects this. Basically, the government would collect a bunch of intelligence that is inadmissible in federal courts and then hold American citizens indefinitely. Also, detaining large numbers of Muslim aliens (who may have strong ties to local Muslim communities) and prosecuting them in military commissions threatens to radicalize citizens who are Muslims. The perceived double standard – commissions for Muslims in America, civilian trials for everyone else – is counterproductive when it comes to defeating terrorist recruiting.

I say that this won’t be a bonanza for the intelligence community because I see this scenario playing out in three ways:

First, it might work as seamlessly as the bill’s sponsors describe. This could be true if we already have a lot of evidence, the suspect is arrested, temporarily transferred for a short session of non-admissible interrogation, and then kicked back to the civilian criminal justice system (true with citizens, not with aliens). There’s an argument that traditional police interrogations could get the same (or more) information that the military can, because military interrogators do not have the bargaining tools such as snitching on co-conspirators for reduced sentences, plea bargains and the like. I won’t belabor that, since it’s not the point of this post.

Second, there’s the possibility that the military and the intelligence community won’t want to get involved in a lot of these cases, essentially nullification of what Congress would dictate with this bill. The FBI would monitor the communications of someone like JihadJane, have mountains of evidence against her, and have a case that supports the arrest of her co-conspirators overseas. In this case military detention is unwarranted, so the military investigator shows up, decides that the law enforcement agents have the situation in hand, and high-fives them on the way out the door. The bulk of terrorism suspects don’t have a wealth of information about other plots, so mandating military detention is tying the Executive’s hands by making counterterrorism agents jump through additional bureaucratic hoops when they take people into custody. I thought this was something that conservatives oppose.

Mandating military custody gets hairier in real emergencies. Imagine a parallel to the 1993 WTC bombing where the FBI knows that a cell is assembling a bomb but doesn’t sweep up the suspects before the bomb is operational and in a truck bound for its intended target. Agents lose track of the suspects, but quickly locate one of them and take him into custody. The new law would mandate that they first get the guy into military custody before asking him where the bomb is going. Besides creating an incentive to put military investigators (CID, NCIS, or OSI) on every Joint Terrorism Task Force in America (possible Posse Comitatus and 10 U.S.C. 375 issues with this and the rest of the bill), this doesn’t even guarantee that a military investigator is with the agents who capture the suspect that we need information from right now. Under the current “soft-on-terrorism law enforcement approach” the law enforcement agents can question the suspect directly and be assured that the exigency of the situation makes his statements admissible in court via Quarles, where the Court created a “public safety” exception for the post-arrest, pre-Miranda questioning of a rapist who had hidden his gun in a supermarket. A bomb heading toward the federal building or a shopping mall is a bigger threat than a revolver mixed in with the fresh fruit, and courts get this. If the course of action dictated to the people on the ground fails the “ticking bomb” scenario, it ought to be opposed by all armchair counterterrorism experts who take their cues from 24.

The third possibility is a worst-case scenario. Suppose we have an American citizen who gets taken into military custody, gives up a lot of information, but then won’t repeat it when he is kicked back to the civilian law enforcement system. Some will make the case that this is justification for an honest-to-goodness preventive detention system to keep such a person in custody.

This raises the question of constitutionality with regard to holding American citizens as domestic enemy combatants. More to the point, it resurrects the case of Yaser Hamdi with a differently-situated plaintiff. Hamdi was a dual US-Saudi citizen who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. He was brought to the US and kept in a naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina. The Supreme Court heard his case and the plurality held that he could be detained as an enemy combatant, but that some form of administrative hearing was required to balance his liberty interest versus the government’s national security concerns.

Justices Scalia and Stevens dissented and got this case right (agreeing with Cato’s brief). American citizens cannot be held without trial short of suspending habeas corpus, and Congress has not supplied language to comply with the Non-Detention Act when it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force after 9/11.

After all, President Bush’s military order of November 13, 2001 directs the Secretary of Defense to detain and try enemy aliens by military commission. The Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009 have not deviated from this language.

The court challenge that results is a return to the Executive playing “chicken” with the courts, and the Executive continuously losing.

Courts will distinguish domestic terrorism suspects from those who participated in hostilities on the battlefield. This was the reasoning behind Jose Padilla’s loss in the 4th Circuit. He had been on the battlefield and escaped, parallel to Yaser Hamdi and the Nazi saboteurs of the Quirin case. This distinguished him from Lambdin Milligan, the post-Civil War domestic terrorist who was ordered out of a military commission and back into the civilian courts.

Even those who disagree with Scalia and Stevens can count votes on the Court. The narrow circumstances in Hamdi are not present here, and the battlefield/civil society distinction has the potential to sway all but two or three of the justices. Kennedy indicated displeasure with the jurisdictional shell game the Bush administration played with Jose Padilla, along with Roberts and Stevens. Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer voted to hear his case even after he had been transferred from enemy combatant status to federal court.

The bottom line is that this bill mandates treating all terrorist attacks as acts of war and not criminal violations, when some are clearly both. It isn’t bad policy because there is no justification for military force – there is – it’s bad policy because it prohibits a pragmatic legal response to terrorism. If the law enforcement paradigm gets results for the threat, use it. The same goes for the military paradigm. But let’s not pick one over the other for the sake of domestic politics.

Gun Rights Secure, Liberty Less So

This morning the Court heard argument in McDonald v. Chicago, the case asking whether the right to keep and bear arms extends to protecting against actions by state and local governments.  Just as importantly, it asked whether the best way to extend that right would be through the Due Process Clause of Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (because the Second Amendment doesn’t apply directly to the states).

From the initial questioning through the end, it was quite clear that those living in Chicago – and, by extension, New York, San Francisco, and other places with extreme gun restrictions – will soon be able to rest easy, knowing that they will be able to have guns with which to protect themselves.  Unfortunately, the Court did not seem inclined to adopt the arguments propounded by petitioners’ counsel Alan Gura (and supported by Cato) that the Privileges or Immunities Clause was the way to go.   Chief Justice Roberts expressed reluctance at having to overturn the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases and other justices joined in concerns over how activist judges would use the Clause if the Court revived it – even if that were the path that hewed more closely to the constitution’s true meaning.

This turn of events is unfortunate because reviving the Privileges or Immunities Clause, far from giving judges free reign to impose their policy views, would actually tie them closer to the text, structure, and history of the Constitution.  As it stands now – and as it seems will be the case after McDonald is decided – many of our most cherished rights are protected only to the extent that judges are willing to label them as sufficiently “fundamental” to warrant such protection.  That is an unprincipled jurisprudence and one that hurts the rule of law.

In short, it is a shame that the Supreme Court seems to be wasting a perfect opportunity to bring constitutional law closer to the Constitution.  It is an even greater shame that it is wasting this chance to use guns to protect liberty.

Monday Links

  • The case for high-deductible health insurance:  “Of every dollar spent on health care in this country, just 13 cents is paid for by the person actually consuming the goods or services….As long as someone else is paying, consumers have every reason to consume as much health care as is available….This all but guarantees that health care costs and spending will continue their unsustainable path. And that is a path leading to more debt, higher taxes, fewer jobs and a reduced standard of living for all Americans.”
  • Reality: The real housing crisis was the bubble, not the bust. “Washington must stop and re-learn basic economics. First, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. In the case of housing, as a country, we built too much. The cure is to build less.”

Monday Links

  • Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron: “Economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy. Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments—attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure—work better when they focus on tax cuts.”