Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Bush Opponents Upset That Bush Lost in the Supreme Court

In an interesting side-note to the Medellin decision, the case’s convoluted procedural history made for some rather strange political bed fellows.  The Court’s decision, anchored by the “conservative wing” (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito) and joined by the “moderate” Kennedy and (writing separately) the “liberal” Stevens effectively clears the last remaining roadblock to Texas’s imposition of the death penalty on the murderer Jose Erenesto Medellin.  Consequently, Tuesday’s result disappointed death penalty abolitionists, who join on the losing side those who want international law to have direct applicability in the United States.  That’s right, by ruling against President Bush’s executive overreach – which at least three members of the Court’s “liberal” wing implicitly ratified – the Court angered cosmopolitan liberals.  Go figure.

I Am the Very Model of a Modern Attorney General

Yesterday, in addition to announcing its decision in the Medellin case (which I blogged about here), the Supreme Court heard argument in two cases relating to the War on Terror. 

First, in Munaf v. Geren, two U.S. citizens (also citizens of Jordan and Iraq, respectively) held captive in Iraq by U.S. forces – as part of Multi-National Force-Iraq, which may but should be a key determinant – challenged their detention and potential transfer to Iraqi authorities for what they fear will be torture as part of criminal prosecution in Iraqi courts.  This seems to be an easier case than Boumediene, a case argued in December wherein Guantanamo detainees challenge their containment and the military commissions by which they are to be tried.  (My colleague Tim Lynch blogged about that case here and here, and also filed an amicus brief.) 

Whatever hope the detainees had was probably dashed by the incoherent presentation made by Northwestern Law School Clinical Professor Joseph Margulies on their behalf.  As Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog put it, “when several Justices of the Supreme Court tell an attorney they do not understand his argument, and they do so because the argument was, indeed, fundamentally confusing, the chances of winning may be significantly reduced.”  Ouch.  Margulies turned what should be relatively straightforward issues into a convoluted maze, and those of us in the audience were not the only ones shaking our heads.

The second argument, and the one relating to the title of this blog post, involved the prosecution of the guy who was caught smuggling explosives into the U.S. from Canada in an attempt to blow up LAX at the turn of the century.  (Is it ok to use that expression for the 1999-2000 period yet?)  In United States v. Ressam, Attorney General Mukasey exercised the AG’s historical (but not much used of late) prerogative to argue before the high court, defending the 10-year additional prison term slapped on the Milennial bomber for “carrying an explosive” while “committing a felony” – the felony being lying to the border guard.  Having learned from Margulies’s example, Mukasey did a workmanlike job and sat down with 14 minutes remaining in his allotted time.  The case will turn on some rather technical statutory analysis which I’ll spare you, but it was refreshing to see an appellate advocate who was clearly not there to hear his own voice.

Supreme Court to President Bush: Don’t Mess With Texas

Tuesday the Supreme Court slipped the Gordian knot of a case that could have come straight from a law school exam, involving federalism, treaty interpretation, the scope of executive power, criminal procedure, and conflicts between international and domestic law.  The issues in Medellin v. Texas boiled down to: 1) Whether a particular decision of the International Court of Justice is automatically binding on Texas courts and, if not, 2) Whether President Bush made it binding by issuing a memorandum to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.  The Court answered in the negative on both counts by a 6-3 margin.

The result of this decision is that neither the ICJ (the so-called “World Court”) nor the president acting alone can force states to review criminal cases involving foreign nationals.  The underlying treaty at issue – which gives foreign nationals accused of a crime the right to meet with consular officials – is not enforceable in the absence of implementing legislation from Congress.  The ICJ ruling is similarly not self-executing, and does not gain legal effect merely because the president tells the states to abide by it.

The Supreme Court has thus protected America’s carefully calibrated system of federalism and checks and balances by preventing an international court from overriding a state’s duly enacted (and constitutionally sound) law.  Just as importantly, the Court correctly rejected the argument that the president has the power to enforce against the states a treaty that is, in the absence of congressional action, enforceable only by diplomatic means.  Telling state courts how to do their jobs is simply not among the powers of the nation’s chief executive.

Newseum Opens April 11th - Will it Keep Up?

The new Newseum opens April 11th, and its an impressive project in many respects.

It’s a striking but tasteful modern building, with the text of the First Amendment inscribed on its front. The location on Pennsylvania Avenue close to the Capitol has a defiant quality that I admire.

As I walked past yesterday, I observed its display along the sidewalk of current front pages from newspapers around the country and world. It’s a tribute to the importance and vibrancy of the newsgathering enterprise and free speech. Tourists were gathered along the front of the building taking in the headlines.

But I don’t read newspapers. I get my news from a wide array of sources almost entirely online. Sooner or later, I thought as I walked, some state is going to punch a hole in the Newseum’s display, as the state will no longer have a newspaper. Soon enough, most people will get their news in new formats - as I do - from sources and in media of all kinds: blogs, email, traditional news outlets’ online editions, and so on.

Will the decline of the newspaper mislead people into thinking that our vibrant tradition of newsgathering and reporting is on the wane? It’s something to think about.

The “founding partners” of the Newseum are some of the oldest of the old-school establishment media figures. (Good for them, by the way, for supporting this worthy venture.) They and the Newseum’s leadership may think that things are changing for the worse when they’re changing for the better - when news is all around us, in dozens of different formats, provided by tens of thousands of subject-matter experts and on-scene reporters with true local knowledge.

The Newseum’s planned exhibits include room for new media, but by and large they lean toward exalting the newsgathering industry. That industry has had an important role, no question, but I think it is a role that will diminish over time. I hope the Newseum will actively pursue reporting on all the news, not just the news that’s fit to print.

DC’s Apathetic, Complacent Nonproducers ♥ Snow Jobs

I just came across this letter I wrote to the editor of the Washington Post.  Sadly, the editor declined to publish it.  Since the Supreme Court just heard oral arguments about the D.C. gun ban and the meaning of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller, it remains relevant:

On January 5, we learned that District officials filed a brief with the Supreme Court [“Gun Law Prevents Harm, D.C. Argues,” Jan. 5] defending the city’s gun ban on the grounds that: the Second Amendment does not protect an individual right to keep and bear arms; the ban “does not deprive the people of reasonable means to defend themselves;” and “less restrictive approaches would not be adequate.”

Fifteen pages later, Colbert I. King [“Outfoxed In the District,” Jan. 5] wrote of the “conditions that threaten the quality of life of all who live in this city: criminals roaming the streets in search of human prey; an apathetic and complacent government workforce; nonproducers ensconced in high places; and elected leaders who fall for snow jobs.”

Draw your own conclusions.

“Montana Wins REAL ID Standoff”

So reports the Missoulian on the Department of Homeland Security’s capitulation in the face of Governor Schweitzer’s resolute rejection of REAL ID.

On Friday, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath notified the Department of Homeland Security that the state will not comply with REAL ID but will pursue the identity security policies it deems appropriate. McGrath urged DHS not to penalize the state for rejecting REAL ID.

DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker chose to interpret McGrath’s letter as a request for an extension of the REAL ID compliance deadline and granted it.

In other words, DHS has abandoned any pretense that it can tell states what to do. A showdown with recalcitrant states around the May 11 compliance deadline would require the Transportation Security Administration to disrupt the passenger air travel system, something DHS evidently recognizes to be a losing proposition.

Montana wins.

More reporting at the Threat Level blog.

Seth Stodder’s Weak Defense of ATS-P

Seth M.M. Stodder with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former director of policy and planning for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has a piece in the Federalist Society’s Engage magazine defending the Automated Targeting System — specifically ATS-P, which is a system for screening border crossers.

The piece starts with the gripping example of a man named Ra’ed Mansour al-Banna who was turned away from the U.S. border and later blew himself up in Iraq. DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker (who undoubtedly now lives in fear of my relentless blogging!) told the story at a CSIS event in December 2006:

[In 2003,] he showed up at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with a valid passport from Jordan, a valid visa to come to the United States to conduct business and he asked to be admitted. There’s no bar to his being admitted other than the fact that he had been selected for a second look by our Automated Targeting System. He was flagged as somebody who just ought to be looked at more closely.

And so one of the CBP officers did exactly that: interviewed him, asked him a bunch of questions about what he intended to do in the United States, and concluded, at the end of the day, he just didn’t like the answers. He wasn’t confident that this guy was going to live up to the obligations that we imposed under the visa and he said, I’m sorry, you’ve got a valid visa, you’ve got a valid passport, you’re not going to come into the United States, and he sent him back to Jordan. Eighteen months later, of course, he was in Hillah, Iraq driving the vehicle-borne IED.

Baker is a smart man and he chooses his words carefully. If al-Banna had been identified by ATS-P as a likely terrorist, Baker would have said so. But he didn’t. He talked about visa obligations.

Maybe the system identified him as a potential visa over-stayer — he had lived in California for two years — and when al-Banna couldn’t convince his interviewer otherwise, CBP excluded him. Maybe, as some news reports have it, CBP sent al-Banna back to Jordan because he falsified details on his visa application (after which he “became withdrawn, holing up in a makeshift studio apartment, sleeping late, and displaying a new interest in religion”). Others say that “Homeland Security officials had no reason to suspect that Albanna had become a terrorist.” Until the full story has been examined, this is anecdotal luck at best, not proof of a successful system.

In his paper, Stoddard claims to take on criticisms I have leveled at the program — and some I haven’t. Here’s the relevant part of Stoddard’s article:

Some have disagreed with the 9/11 Commission’s assessment of ATS-P’s effectiveness in assisting CBP, and have asserted that ATS-P is simply ineffective. Jeff Jonas and Jim Harper of the Cato Institute have asserted that, in general, “[t]hough data mining has many valuable uses, it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery problem,” because of the purported absence of “terrorism patterns” which [sic] to draw strategic intelligence. During a panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jim Harper applied this analysis to ATS-P as well. But Jonas and Harper do not appear to understand all of ATS-P’s functions—including its link analysis function, operationalizing specific tactical intelligence by drawing linkages between known facts (e.g., a credit card number used by a known terrorist) and travelers seeking admission to the United States (e.g., if the PNR on a traveler indicates that traveler used that same credit card number to purchase his ticket). To the extent this conclusion also is pointed at ATS-P, Jonas and Harper may be uninformed. Indeed, the ultimate testimony to ATS-P’s effectiveness is not al-Banna, but its continued use by CBP and CBP’s ongoing efforts to improve it.

(link added)

Now let’s review what I said at the CSIS event:

The story of the suicide bomber in Iraq was gripping and thrilling, frankly, but I think it was an invitation to us to indulge in what’s known as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That’s Latin for “because it followed in time, there must be correlation.” Because ATS existed, he was stopped at the border. It may be true, but [it’s] not necessarily true. Had he gotten into the country, he would have done in this country what he was able to do in Iraq. Maybe true, but probably not true. The infrastructure isn’t here and the support isn’t here to be able to pull off that kind of thing. So it’s, again, a gripping story, but not necessarily a good basis for policymaking.

In addressing what ATS is, it’s a check against the no-fly list. I think most people are aware of that. Link analysis, it makes pretty good sense in many cases. [Baker d]idn’t address the question of the risk score, which is the most concerning, I think, to most people, for a variety of reasons. And exactly how that risk score is created isn’t known, and I imagine that Secretary Baker and others would refuse to tell us how that risk score is created because that would create a security breach in the system. But it’s precisely there that the capacity for rank unfairness in the system is created. And it’s a system that doesn’t just apply, as I understand it, to foreigners coming to the country, but to everyone traversing the border, and that’s – I’m sorry to be so parochial, but I’m most interested in the rights of American citizens who are traveling internationally and returning to the country.

(emphases added)

Now, it’s true that I am less informed about ATS-P than Stodder and Baker. Homeland Security folks hold inside information and they try to use secrecy as a trump card. My oral recitation of ATS-P’s details lacks polish, but I know enough to have specifically approved of link analysis while disapproving predictive data mining. In our paper, Jeff Jonas and I excluded link analysis (referred to as “subject-based analysis”) from our criticisms. Stodder refutes an objection I did not make, suggesting that I’m uninformed.

And he does not address the objection I did make, based on the paper Jeff Jonas and I published: predictive data mining won’t catch terrorists.

His evidence that ATS-P works?: “[I]ts continued use by CBP and CBP’s ongoing efforts to improve it.” It takes several logical leaps and generous inferences to make that good evidence.

The only other successes with finding immigrating terrorists he cites beyond al-Banna (if indeed he was a terrorist at the time) are “Millennium Bomber” Ahmed Ressam and Mohammed al-Qahtani. Those two, though, were picked up by alert CBP officers unaided by ATS-P (so far as we know — and one expects we would know).

Two terrorists that perhaps should have been picked up by ATS-P but weren’t are Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, 9-11 attackers who entered the country and lived openly in the United States even though they were known to be linked to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Before U.S. authorities failed to look for them, ATS-P failed to pick them out for additional questioning at the border. That’s typical of data mining for terrorism: high false positives and high false negatives.