10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing 4 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.

2013

What a Targeted Killing in the US Would Look Like

Amid now-abandoned discussions about using the FISA court to review targeted killing, I pointed out that a targeted killing in the US would look just like the October 28, 2009 killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah.

Article II or AUMF? “A High Level Official” (AKA John Brennan) Says CIA Can Murder You

When the second memo (as opposed to the first 7-page version) used to authorize the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, it became clear that OLC never really decided whether the killing was done under Article II or the AUMF. That’s important because if it’s the latter, it suggests the President can order anyone killed.

John Brennan Sworn in as CIA Director Using Constitution Lacking Bill of Rights

I know in the Trump era we’re supposed to forget that John Brennan sponsored a whole lot of drone killing and surveillance. But I spent a good deal of the Obama Administration pointing that out. Including by pointing out that the Constitution he swore to protect and defend didn’t have the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendment in it.

2014

The Day After Government Catalogs Data NSA Collected on Tsarnaevs, DOJ Refuses to Give Dzhokhar Notice

I actually think it’s unreasonable to expect the government’s dragnets to prevent all attacks. But over and over (including with 9/11), NSA gets a pass when we do reviews of why an attack was missed. This post lays out how that happened in the Boston Marathon case. A follow-up continued that analysis.

A Guide to John Rizzo’s Lies, For Lazy Journalists

Former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo lies, a lot. But that doesn’t seem to lead journalists to treat his claims skeptically, nor did it prevent them from taking his memoir as a statement of fact. In this post I summarized all the lies he told in the first 10 pages of it.

Obama to Release OLC Memo after Only 24 Congressional Requests from 31 Members of Congress

Over the year and a half when one after another member of Congress asked for the OLC memos that authorized the drone execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, I tracked all those requests. This was the last post, summarizing all of them.

The West’s Ideological Vacuum

With the rise of Trump and the success of Russia intervening in US and European politics, I’ve been talking about how the failures of US neoliberal ideology created a vacuum to allow those things to happen. But I’ve been talking about the failures of our ideology for longer than that, here in a post on ISIS.

KSM Had the CIA Believing in Black Muslim Convert Jihadist Arsonists in Montana for 3 Months

There weren’t a huge number of huge surprises in the SSCI Torture Report for me (indeed, its scope left out some details about the involvement of the White House I had previously covered). But it did include a lot of details that really illustrate the stupidity of the torture program. None was more pathetic than the revelation that KSM had the CIA convinced that he was recruiting black Muslim converts to use arson in Montana.

2015

The Jeffrey Sterling Trial: Merlin Meets Curveball

A big part of the Jeffrey Sterling trial was CIA theater, with far more rigorous protection for 10 year old sources and methods than given to 4 year old Presidential Daily Briefs in the Scooter Libby trial. Both sides seemed aware that the theater was part of an attempt, in part, to help the CIA gets its reputation back after the Iraq War debacle. Except that the actual evidence presented at trial showed CIA was up to the same old tricks. That didn’t help Sterling at all. But neither did it help CIA as much as government prosecutors claimed.

The Real Story Behind 2014 Indictment of Chinese Hackers: Ben Rhodes Moves the IP Theft Goal Posts

I’ve written a lot about the first indictment of nation-state hackers — People’s Liberation Army hackers who compromised some mostly Pittsburgh located entities, including the US Steel Workers. Contrary to virtually all the reporting on the indictment, the indictment pertained to things we nation-state hack for too: predominantly, spying on negotiations. The sole exception involves the theft of some nuclear technology from Westinghouse that might have otherwise been dealt to China as part of a technology transfer arrangement.

Obama’s Terrorism Cancer Speech, Carter’s Malaise Speech

In response to a horrible Obama speech capitulating to Republican demands he treat the San Bernardino attack specially, as Islamic terrorism, I compared the speech to Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. Along the way, I noted that Carter signed the finding to train the mujahadeen at almost the exactly moment he gave the malaise speech. The trajectory of America has never been the same since.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

As We Face Our Current Emergency Let’s Not Forget How (and Who) Our Last One Contributed to This One

All over Twitter yesterday, people introduced this Michael Hayden tweet decrying Trump’s “assault on truth, a free press or the first amendment” by emphasizing that he served as CIA and NSA Director.

They seem to forget that, in the name of supporting expansive executive authority, Hayden lied to Congress, targeted Thomas Drake for his unclassified communications with the press about Hayden’s support for profiteering contractors, and attacked journalists who have covered the Snowden leaks.

Also on Twitter, Ben Wittes wrote a long thread, advocating that “Americans do not need to be actively contesting right now across traditional left-right divisions” so long as “Americans of good faith collectively band together to face a national emergency.”

In a thread that singles out the First Amendment (though not, predictably, the Fourth), Wittes imagines two main entities that might conduct investigations into Trump: law enforcement and “men and women of the bureaucracy who are courageous enough to come forward and assist,” though he follows quickly with a generalized profession that this non-partisan truce he has unilaterally declared also involves supporting the spooks.

Having declared a truce on “important foreign policy questions,” he then emphasizes we have to keep our promises abroad.

And also we have to keep promises about rights.

The two, together, have set off a debate about what our national emergency really is — where Trump came from.

Remarkably, I’ve seen few pointing back to this remarkable Adam Serwer piece on the whiteness that got Trump elected. As he lays out, Trump got elected because white voters cared more about restoring “traditional” race, sex, and class roles than about all the horrible things Trump espoused.

Trump’s great political insight was that Obama’s time in office inflicted a profound psychological wound upon many white Americans, one that he could remedy by adopting the false narrative that placed the first black president outside the bounds of American citizenship. He intuited that Obama’s presence in the White House decreased the value of what W. E. B. Du Bois described as the “psychological wage” of whiteness across all classes of white Americans, and that the path to their hearts lay in invoking a bygone past when this affront had not taken place, and could not take place.

That the legacy of the first black president could be erased by a birther, that the woman who could have been the first female president was foiled by a man who confessed to sexual assault on tape—these were not drawbacks to Trump’s candidacy, but central to understanding how he would wield power, and on whose behalf.

Americans act with the understanding that Trump’s nationalism promises to restore traditional boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. The nature of that same nationalism is to deny its essence, the better to salve the conscience and spare the soul.

Serwer’s piece is absolutely required reading.

But his exposition largely focuses on the domestic aspect of white supremacy. This paragraph is one of the few that focuses on the last emergency people like Wittes and Hayden screamed un-self critically about, the never-ending war on terror.

In the meantime, more than a decade of war nationalism directed at jihadist groups has shaped Republican attitudes toward Muslims—from seeing them as potential Republican voters in the late 1990s to viewing them as internal enemies currently. War nationalism always turns itself inward, but in the past, wars ended. Anti-Irish violence fell following the service of Irish American soldiers in the Civil War; Germans were integrated back into the body politic after World War II; and the Italians, Jews, and eastern Europeans who were targeted by the early 20th century’s great immigration scare would find themselves part of a state-sponsored project of assimilation by the war’s end. But the War on Terror is without end, and so that national consolidation has never occurred. Again, Trump is a manifestation of this trend rather than its impetus, a manifestation that began to rise not long after Obama’s candidacy.

And there’s no mention of white supremacy’s foreign counterpart, American exceptionalism, which has long led (white male) Americans to believe America had somehow earned its wealth and prestige without, at the same time, hurting the well-being of others around the world, one which has made Trump’s instinct to demand capitulation from other countries so popular.

Both are, after all, about assuming the capitulation of brown people is the natural order we deserve, whether in our neighborhoods or on the other side of the world.

I raise all this because, in addition to the whiteness problem Serwer lays out, I do think the exceptionalism and expansive executive power that Hayden and Wittes have championed are part of what created this emergency as well. Those who created and sustained that last emergency — those who insisted we needed exceptional measures the last time, exceptional measures that gave Trump far more tools with which to violate norms and persecute enemies — want us to divorce this emergency from their own actions that contributed to it and may make it harder to recover from.

By all means, those who newly admit problems with expansive executive power are welcome to join those of us who’ve long been fighting it. But I’m not sure why everyone wants them to take the lead.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

John Yoo Wishes Trump Abused Executive Authority More Effectively

At the end of a John Yoo critique of Donald Trump’s abuses that a lot of people are mis-reading, he says this:

A successful president need not have a degree in constitutional law. But he should understand the Constitution’s grant of executive power. He should share Hamilton’s vision of an energetic president leading the executive branch in a unified direction, rather than viewing the government as the enemy. He should realize that the Constitution channels the president toward protecting the nation from foreign threats, while cooperating with Congress on matters at home.

Otherwise, our new president will spend his days overreacting to the latest events, dissipating his political capital and haphazardly wasting the executive’s powers.

John Yoo is not stating that, across the board, Trump has overstepped his authority. Indeed, the areas where Yoo suggests Trump has or will overstep his authority — exiting NAFTA and building a wall — are things Trump has not yet put into place. His concern is prospective. The only thing Trump has already done that Yoo believes abused power was firing Sally Yates, and that because of his explanation for firing her.

Even though the constitutional text is silent on the issue, long historical practice and Supreme Court precedent have recognized a presidential power of removal. Mr. Trump was thus on solid footing, because attorneys general have a duty to defend laws and executive orders, so long as they have a plausible legal grounding. But the White House undermined its valid use of the removal power by accusing Ms. Yates of being “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” Such irrelevant ad hominem accusations suggest a misconception of the president’s authority of removal.

Yoo doesn’t, for example, complain about Trump’s Executive Order on Dodd-Frank, which may have little effect.

But what Yoo is worried about is not abuse, per se, but that Trump will “waste the executive’s powers.”

That’s important given Yoo’s critique of Trump’s Muslim ban.

Immigration has driven Mr. Trump even deeper into the constitutional thickets. Even though his executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim nations makes for bad policy, I believe it falls within the law. But after the order was issued, his adviser Rudolph Giuliani disclosed that Mr. Trump had initially asked for “a Muslim ban,” which would most likely violate the Constitution’s protection for freedom of religion or its prohibition on the state establishment of religion, or both — no mean feat. Had Mr. Trump taken advantage of the resources of the executive branch as a whole, not just a few White House advisers, he would not have rushed out an ill-conceived policy made vulnerable to judicial challenge.

Yoo is saying that Trump could have implemented this policy if only he had gotten better advice about how to hide the fact that it was a Muslim ban, in the same way firing Yates would have been fine had Trump offered another explanation for it.

There’s a big rush among those who’ve abused executive authority in the past to rehabilitate themselves by seeming to criticize Trump. Many of them — including Yoo — are mostly complaining that Trump’s bad execution of abuse of executive power might give it a bad name.

 

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

9/11: A Story of Attacks, Horror, Victims, Heroes and Jingoistic Shame

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-2-54-38-amSeptember 11, 2001 is now 15 years in the mirror of life. Like the two Kennedy assassinations, the Moonshot and a few other events in life, it is one of those “yeah I remember where I was when…” moments. Personally, being on west coast time, I was just waking up thinking all I had was a normal morning court calendar. When my wife, who gets up far earlier than I, shouted at me to rub out the cobwebs and watch the TV because something was seriously wrong in New York City. She was right. It was a hell of a day, one of unspeakable tragedy and indescribable heroism. It was truly all there in one compact day, unlike any other, save maybe December 7, 1941.

2,996 people lost their lives, and their families and history were forever altered in the course of hours on an otherwise clear and beautiful day in Manhattan. Most were simply innocent victims, but many were the epitome of heroes who charged into a hellscape to try to salvage any life they could. There were other heroes that altered their lives in response, and either died or were forever changed as a result. One was a friend of mine from South Tempe, Pat Tillman.

No one can speak for Pat Tillman, and, save for his family, those who claim to only prove they never met the man. All I can say is, I wish he were here today. The one thing that is certain is he would not give the prepackaged trite partisan reaches you are likely to hear today. It would be unfiltered truth. Which the US did not get from its leaders after September 11, 2001, and is still missing today.

Instead of rallying and solidifying the oneness of the American citizenry that was extant immediately after September 11, 2001, the Bush/Cheney Administration and GOP told us to go shopping and that we needed to invade Iraq, who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. It was a fools, if not devil’s, errand and a move that threw away an opportunity for greatness from the country and exploited it in favor of war crimes and raw political power expansion and consolidation.

Instead of gelling the United States to make ourselves better as the “Greatest Generation” did sixty years before, America was wholesale sold a bill of goods by a determined group of unreformed and craven Neo-Con war criminals left over from the Vietnam era, and we were led down the path to a war of aggression that was an unmitigated disaster we have not only not recovered from today, but are still compounding.

The 2000’s will prove to be a decade of American shame when history is written decades from now. Not from the attacks, but from our craven response thereto. So, pardon me if I join Colin Kaepernick and choose not to join, every Sunday, just because the Madison Avenue revenue generating NFL of Roger Goodell cravenly exploits it, the jingoistic bullshit of rote dedication to a racist National Anthem. Also, too, shame on opportunistic and Constitutionally ignorant whiny police unions who scold free speech and threaten to abandon their jobs in the face of it.

powell_un_anthraxBut that is all over now surely. Taking the United States, nee the world, to a forever war on the wings of a craven lie is universally recognized, condemned and scorned, right?

No. The Neo-Cons are unrepentant and still trying to advance themselves on the lie that their once and forever war justifies more than their prosecution and conviction in The Hague. Here is a belligerent and unrepentant Dick Cheney passing the torch of evil to his spawn Liz Cheney in the august pages of the Wall Street Journal:

We are no longer interrogating terrorists in part because we are no longer capturing terrorists. Since taking office, the president has recklessly pursued his objective of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo by releasing current detainees—regardless of the likelihood they will return to the field of battle against us. Until recently, the head of recruitment for ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a former Guantanamo detainee, as is one of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders in the Arabian Peninsula.

As he released terrorists to return to the field of battle, Mr. Obama was simultaneously withdrawing American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. He calls this policy “ending wars.” Most reasonable people recognize this approach as losing wars.

Times may change, but the bottomless pit of Cheney lies and evil do not. As Charlie Savage pointed out on Twitter, the two terrorists the Cheneys refer to were actually released back to the “field of battle” by Bush and Cheney, not Obama. Was Obama involved in the story? Yes, he would be the one who actually tracked them down and killed them.

And then there is the failure to learn the lessons of the failed torture regime Bush and Cheney instituted as the hallmark of the “War on Terror”. Our friend, and former colleague, Spencer Ackerman has a must read three part series over the last three days in The Guardian (Part One, Part Two and Part Three) detailing how the CIA rolled the Obama Administration and prevented any of the necessary exposure, accountability and reform that was desperately needed in the aftermath of the torture regime and war of aggression in Iraq. It will take a while, but read all three parts. It is exasperating and maddening. It is also journalism at its finest.

And so, as we glide through the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, what are we left with from our response to the attacks? A destabilized world, an ingraining of hideous mistakes and a domestic scene more notable for jingoism and faux patriotism than dedication to the founding principles that America should stand for.

That is not what the real heroes, not only of 9/11 but the totality of American history, died to support and protect. In fact, it is an insult to their efforts and lives. If America wants to win the “War on Terror”, we need to get our heads out of our asses, quit listening to the neocons, war mongers, and military industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower warned us about, and act intelligently. This requires a cessation of adherence to jingoistic and inane propaganda and thought, and a focus on the principles we are supposed to stand for.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

On The Passing of David Margolis, the DOJ Institution

david-margolis-250David Margolis was a living legend and giant at the Department of Justice. Now he has passed. Just posted is the following from DOJ:

Statements From Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates on the Passing of Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates released the following statements today on the passing of Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, senior-most career employee at the Department of Justice.

Statement by Attorney General Lynch:

“David Margolis was a dedicated law enforcement officer and a consummate public servant who served the Department of Justice – and the American people – with unmatched devotion, remarkable skill and evident pride for more than half a century. From his earliest days as a hard-charging young prosecutor with a singular sense of style to his long tenure as one of the department’s senior leaders, David took on our nation’s most pressing issues and navigated our government’s most complex challenges. To generations of Justice Department employees, he was a respected colleague, a trusted advisor and most importantly, a beloved friend. We are heartbroken at his loss and he will be deeply missed. My thoughts and prayers are with David’s family, his friends and all who loved him.”

Statement by Deputy Attorney General Yates:

“David Margolis was the personification of all that is good about the Department of Justice. His dedication to our mission knew no bounds, and his judgment, wisdom and tenacity made him the “go-to” guy for department leaders for over 50 years. David was a good and loyal friend to all of us, and his loss leaves a gaping hole in the department and in our hearts.”

I am sure Mr. Margolis was a kind, personable and decent chap to those who knew and worked with him. I can be sure because there have been many voices I know who have related exactly that. He was undoubtedly a good family man and pillar of his community. None of that is hard to believe, indeed, it is easy to believe.

Sally Yates is spot on when she says Margolis’ “dedication to our [DOJ] mission knew no bounds”. That is not necessarily in a good way though, and Margolis was far from the the “personification of all that is good about the Department of Justice”. Mr. Margolis may have been such internally at the Department, but it is far less than clear he is really all that to the public and citizenry the Department is designed to serve. Indeed there is a pretty long record Mr. Margolis consistently not only frustrated accountability for DOJ malfeasance, but was the hand which guided and ingrained the craven protection of any and all DOJ attorneys for accountability, no matter how deeply they defiled the arc of justice.

This is no small matter. When DOJ Inspectors General go to Congress to decry the fact that there is an internal protection racket within the Department of Justice shielding even the worst wrongs by Department attorneys, as IG Glen Fine did:

Second, the current limitation on the DOJ OIG’s jurisdiction prevents the OIG – which by statute operates independent of the agency – from investigating an entire class of misconduct allegations involving DOJ attorneys’ actions, and instead assigns this responsibility to OPR, which is not statutorily independent and reports directly to the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General. In effect, the limitation on the OIG’s jurisdiction creates a conflict of interest and contravenes the rationale for establishing independent Inspectors General throughout the government. It also permits an Attorney General to assign an investigation raising questions about his conduct or the conduct of his senior staff to OPR, an entity reporting to and supervised by the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General and lacking the insulation and independence guaranteed by the IG Act.

This concern is not merely hypothetical. Recently, the Attorney General directed OPR to investigate aspects of the removal of U.S. Attorneys. In essence, the Attorney General assigned OPR – an entity that does not have statutory independence and reports directly to the Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General – to investigate a matter involving the Attorney General’s and the Deputy Attorney General’s conduct. The IG Act created OIGs to avoid this type of conflict of interest. It created statutorily independent offices to investigate allegations of misconduct throughout the entire agency, including actions of agency leaders. All other federal agencies operate this way, and the DOJ should also.

Third, while the OIG operates transparently, OPR does not. The OIG publicly releases its reports on matters of public interest, with the facts and analysis underlying our conclusions available for review. In contrast, OPR operates in secret. Its reports, even when they examine matters of significant public interest, are not publicly released.

Said fact and heinous lack of accountability for Justice Department attorneys, not just in Washington, but across the country and territories, is largely because of, and jealously ingrained by, David Margolis. What Glen Fine was testifying about is the fact there is no independent regulation and accountability for DOJ attorneys.

They are generally excluded from the Department IG purview of authority, and it is rare, if ever, courts or state bar authorities will formally review DOJ attorneys without going throughout the filter of the OPR – the Office of Professional Responsibility – within the Department. A protection racket designed and jealously guarded for decades by David Margolis. Even when cases were found egregious enough to be referred out of OPR, they went to…..David Margolis.

In fact, attuned people literally called the OPR the “Roach Motel”:

“I used to call it the Roach Motel of the Justice Department,” says Fordham University law professor Bruce A. Green, a former federal prosecutor and ethics committee co-chair for the ABA Criminal Justice Section. “Cases check in, but they don’t check out.”

If you want a solid history of OPR, and the malfeasance it and Margolis have cravenly protected going back well over a decade, please go read “The Roach Motel”, a 2009 article in no less an authority than the American Bar Association Journal. It is a stunning and damning report. It is hard to describe just how much this one man, David Margolis, has frustrated public transparency and accountability into the Justice Department that supposedly works for the citizens of the United States. It is astounding really.

As I wrote back in 2010:

But just as there is an inherent conflict in the DOJ’s use of the fiction of the OPR to police itself, so too does David Margolis have issues giving the distinct appearance of impropriety. Who and what is David Margolis? A definitive look at the man was made by the National Law Journal (subscription required):

“Taking him on is a losing battle,” says the source. “The guy is Yoda. Nobody fucks with the guy.”
….
Margolis cut his teeth as an organized-crime prosecutor, and he often uses mob analogies in talking about his career at the Justice Department. When asked by an incoming attorney general what his job duties entailed, Margolis responded: “I’m the department’s cleaner. I clean up messes.”

The analogy calls to mind the character of Winston Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel in the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” In the movie, Wolfe is called in by mob honchos to dispose of the evidence after two foot soldiers accidentally kill a murder witness in the back of their car.

“The Cleaner” Mr. Margolis considered himself, while fastidiously sanitizing gross malfeasance and misconduct by DOJ attorneys, all the while denying the American public the disinfectant of sunshine and transparency they deserve from their public servants (good discussion by Marcy, also from 2010).

Perhaps no single incident epitomized Margolis’ determination to be the “cleaner” for the Department of Justice and keep their dirt from public scrutiny and accountability than the case of John Yoo (and to similar extent, now lifetime federal judge Jay Bybee). Yoo as you may recall was the enlightened American who formally opinedcrushing innocent children’s testicles would be acceptable conduct for the United States to engage in. Yoo and Bybee, by their gross adoption of torture, literally personally soiled the reputation of the United States as detrimentally as any men in history.

So, what did David Margolis do in response to the heinous legal banality of evil John Yoo and Jay Bybee engendered in our name? Margolis cleaned it up. He sanitized it. Rationalized it. Ratified it. Hid it. To such an extent architects of such heinous war crimes are now lifetime appointed federal judges and tenured professors. Because that is what “The Cleaner” David Margolis did. “Protecting” the DOJ from accountability, at all costs, even from crimes against humanity, was simply the life goal of David Margolis, and he was depressingly successful at it.

So, less than 24 hours in to the passing of The Cleaner, is it too early to engage in this criticism? Clearly other career officials at the DOJ think discussing the pernicious effects of Margolis on accountability and transparency are out of bounds.

I wonder what the late Senator Ted Stevens would say in response to the “too soon” mandate of Steven Bressler? Because thanks to the efforts of The Cleaner Margolis, Stevens died without the public knowing what an unethical and craven, if not downright criminal, witch hunt attorneys in the Department of Justice ran on him. Even after Stevens was long gone from office and dead, there was Margolis “cleaning” it all up to protect his precious Justice Department when even the internal OPR found gross misconduct:

Following the Justice Department’s agreement in 2009 to vacate the convictions it obtained of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, it conducted an internal probe into the conduct of its senior lawyers and—surprise!—exonerated them and itself. It then refused to make the report public. However, at the time the conviction was voided, the presiding judge in Stevens’s case, Emmet Sullivan, appropriately wary of the department’s ethics office, appointed a special prosecutor, Henry F. Schuelke, III, an eminent Washington attorney and former prosecutor, to probe the DOJ’s conduct. Late last week, Schuelke’s 525-page report was released, over the loud objections of DOJ lawyers. The report revealed gross misconduct by the prosecutorial team, stretching over the entire course of the case and reaching into the upper echelons of the department. It concluded there had been “systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated [Stevens’s] defense.”

Having laid out the above bill of particulars as to David Margolis, I’d like to return to where we started. As I said in the intro, “I am sure Mr. Margolis was a kind, personable and decent chap”. That was not cheap rhetoric, from all I can discern, both from reading accounts and talking to people who knew Mr. Margolis well, he was exactly that. Ellen Nakashima did a fantastic review of Margolis in the Washington Post last year. And, let’s be honest, the man she described is a guy you would love to know, work with and be around. I know I would. David Margolis was a man dedicated. And an incredibly significant man, even if few in the public understood it.

Say what you will, but Mr. Margolis was truly a giant. While I have no issue delineating what appear to be quite pernicious effects of David Margolis’ gargantuan footprint on the lack of accountability of the Department of Justice to the American citizenry, I have some real abiding respect for what, and who, he was as a man. Seriously, read the Nakashima article and tell me David Margolis is not a man you would love to kill some serious beers with by a peaceful lake somewhere.

But David Margolis, both the good and the bad, is gone now. Where will his legacy live? One of our very longtime friends here at Emptywheel, Avattoir, eruditely said just yesterday:

Focus instead on the institution, not the players. The players are just data points, hopefully leading to greater understanding of the institutional realities.

Those words were literally the first I thought of yesterday when I received the phone call David Margolis had passed. They are true and important words that I, and all, need to take heed of more frequently.

David Margolis, it turns out from all appearances and reports, was a complex man. Clearly great, and clearly detrimental, edges to him. So what will his legacy be at the Department of Justice? Will the closing of the Margolis era, and it was truly that, finally bring the institution of the Department into a modern and appropriate light of transparency, accountability and sunshine?

Or will the dirty deeds of David Margolis’ historical ratification and concealment of pervasive and gross misconduct by Department of Justice attorneys become permanently enshrined as a living legacy to the man?

We shall see.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

On Presidential Powers to Destabilize Entire Regions

In his latest installment on Trump and the powers of the American presidency, Ben Wittes manages to avoid calling his adversaries delusional while making delusional arguments himself, which makes for a much more intriguing post. In this one, he shifts his focus to the topics his adversaries had originally focused on, which Wittes calls “U.S. arms and war powers” but which for the moment I’ll call “national security.”

Wittes argues that the degree of authority granted the President in matters of war is scary, but less scary than not having such a powerful President.

It was a few years ago, on a panel at American University’s Washington College of Law, that I heard Brad Berenson—who served in the White House Counsel’s office under President Bush—make an arresting statement about the American Presidency.

The Presidency, Berenson argued, is an office of terrifying power. There is no legal question—at least as a matter of domestic constitutional law—that the president has the authority to order a preemptive nuclear strike on Tehran. Indeed, there is really only one thing, Berenson said, that is scarier than a president who has such power in his sole command: a president who does not have that power.

[snip]

“Energy in the Executive,” wrote Hamilton, “is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks. . . .” The reason? “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Translation: If you want government to do things, you have to have an executive capable of it.

Wittes admits that presidency doesn’t have to be this way — indeed, that Israel, which he describes as “another democratic country that has ongoing security issues and fights wars semi-regularly” doesn’t have it. Me, I’d call Israel a partially democratic country that faces far greater security issues, but which has nevertheless thrived for 70 years without it. Which is another way of saying, right in the middle of his post arguing for the necessity of a unitary presidency, Wittes provides a counterargument that suggests that, at least in some circumstances (Israel has had a lot of help, after all), it’s not actually necessary.

Nevertheless, Wittes likes what we’ve got because it gives us decisiveness and accountability.

The American system has a lot to recommend it. It generates not merely decisiveness of action, but also political accountability for that action—what Hamilton called “a due dependence on the people” and “a due responsibility.” Divide up the executive authority and nobody really knows who gets credit for success and who gets blame for failure. Nobody is responsible for anything in Israel, for example. Give all the responsibility to one president, and that is not really a problem. Nobody doubts who is responsible for Obamacare, for example, or for the Iraq war.

It’s definitely true we know who to hold responsible for Obamacare. Getting into the Iraq War, too — though there’s far less certainty among the public about who is responsible for the failure to negotiate a SOFA, which led to the withdrawal timeline, and (arguably) to the resurgence of what would become ISIS. Both Obama and Bush get blamed.

But it’s an interesting argument particularly in light of Wittes’ prior dismissal of Conor Friedersdorf and Jennifer Granick’s concerns about drones and surveillance, because on those issues and many more, the Executive is shielded from much political and all legal accountability. Presidents have authorized a vast range of covert action over the years that have led to a great deal of blowback that they by definition cannot be held accountable for. Hell, as recently as 2013, the Executive was stone-walling SSCI member Ron Wyden about what countries we were conducting lethal counterterrorism operations in, and it took years of requests, starting before the Anwar al-Awlaki killing and continuing for some time after it, before Wyden was permitted to see the authorization for that.

No one may doubt who is responsible for Obamacare, but even select oversight committees, and especially voters, simply don’t know all the things they might want to hold a president accountable for.

And on the issues that (I think) Wittes would lump under “national security,” such secrecy, such unilateral power, actually may lead to rash and often stupid decisions. Setting aside what you think about the need for the President to have authority to order preemptive nuclear strikes (the “Bomb Power” that Garry Wills argues created the necessity for such secrecy), with such authority also comes the ability to create significant harms to the US by a thousand cuts of stupid covert action. We helped to create modern Sunni terrorism via such secret authority, after all.

Add in the fact that the Intelligence Community now claims cyberattacks are the biggest threat to the US. That’s an area where there has been a distinct lack of accountability, even after catastrophic failures.

But one thing never happens in either of those worlds: accountability.

On the national security side, I have long noted that people like then Homeland Security Czar John Brennan or Director of National Security Keith Alexander never get held responsible when the US gets badly pawned. The Chinese were basically able to steal the better part of the F-35 program, yet we still don’t demand good cyber practices from defense contractors or question the approach the NSA used on cyber defense. A few people lost their job because of the OPM hack, but not the people who have a larger mandate for counterintelligence or cybersecurity. Indeed, the National Security Council apparently considers cyber a third category, in addition to public safety and national security.

As a result, whereas we assume (wrongly) that we should expect the NatSec establishment to prevent all terrorist attacks, no one thinks to hold our NatSec establishment responsible if China manages to steal databases of all our cleared personnel.

Finally, our supposedly nimble presidency has been distinctly unable to act decisively in two areas that have been a bigger threat to the US than Iran or terrorism of late: financial recklessness and crime, and climate change. The reasons for inaction are dramatically different (though both have a lot to do with the way big money dominates our elections), but the effect is that the President has a lot of power to kill Americans in secret, but doesn’t wield that same power to prevent systemic catastrophes of another sort.

Wittes ends his piece by blaming the electorate — a stance I’m not unsympathetic with.

I want to suggest, in closing, that the problem here is not a structural flaw in the executive branch. That we are contemplating our fears of a Trump presidency reflects, rather, a flaw in the electorate that would contemplate his election and in the political leadership of one of our major political parties—leadership that prefers to back him than repudiate him. In a democracy, the people, generally speaking, get the president they ask for. And if the populace asks for an abusive, erratic, proudly ignorant figure of no coherent policy vision, it’s going to get that.

But I’m far more struck by this passage, which seems a much better argument for reversing some of what even Wittes admits has been growing power of the presidency.

[I]n the ordinary course of business, nobody gets to remove from the hands of the president the vast powers that he lawfully wields: the power to destabilize regions, launch military adventures, abrogate agreements, and destroy alliances. These powers are inherent features of powers of the presidency, and they are inherent powers that we actively need.

Wittes argues we can’t impose any limits on the President (even ones that existed as recently as 15 years ago), because we need the ability to do stupid things with little oversight.

Given how damaging those powers have already been, in the hands of purportedly sane Presidents, why do we think we want to keep it that way?

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Imperialist Robert Kagan Disavows the Bureaucracy of Immense American Presidency He Championed

The chattering class is in love with this Robert Kagan op-ed warning of Donald Trump bringing fascism,

not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

I suppose I’m unsurprised that Beltway insiders are so gleeful that this Hillary-endorsing Neocon has turned on Republicans in such a fashion. Or, perhaps more importantly, that they’re so thrilled someone with such a soapbox has written a warning of impending fascism that so neatly disavows any responsibility — for Kagan himself, and by association, for other insiders.

But there are a couple of real problems with Kagan’s screed.

First, Kagan would like you to believe that Trump’s success has nothing to do with policy or ideology or the Republican party except insofar as the party “incubated” Trump.

But of course the entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him.

Kagan gets Trump’s relationship with the Republican party exactly reversed. The party did not in any way incubate Trump. 80’s style greed and cable TV incubated Trump, if anything. What the Republican party has long incubated is racism. Trump just capitalized on that and pushed it just … a … bit … further than Republican dogwhistles traditionally go, in a year in which the GOP had lost a great deal of its credibility.

Which is why Kagan is also wrong in claiming that Trump isn’t about policy or ideology. I admit that Trump has always shown great deal of ideological flexibility, both before and during this run. But he has been consistent on two points: that racism, but also protectionism. There are a lot of reasons those two ideological keystones have appealed this year, but one has to do with the failures of globalization and the related American hegemonic project it assumes. That’s ideology and policy, both Trump’s, but also DC’s, including Kagan’s.

Kagan goes on to deal with these two issues.

We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

Note the assumption that Trump’s protectionism is not an economic remedy but some unstated alternative is? Note Kagan’s treatment of racism, an ideology, as fear divorced from that ideology of white American exceptionalism?

Fear!! Kagan wants to boil Trump’s popularity down to fear! A guy who has had a central role in ginning up serial American aggressive wars is offended that someone wields fear to achieve political power!!! And having done that, this warmonger says the ability to gin up fear is precisely what our Founders — the men who set up three competing branches of government, each jealously guarding its power — were concerned about.

Which brings me to the Kagan argument that most baffles me. After bewailing Republican politicians’ refusal to stand up to Trump’s demagoguery, Kagan then argues (though I’m not sure he even realizes he’s making this argument) that Article I and Article III (the latter of which goes entirely unmentioned in this op-ed) will be powerless to stop Trump and his “legions” once he becomes president.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him. By then that following will have grown dramatically. Today, less than 5 percent of eligible voters have voted for Trump. But if he wins the election, his legions will comprise a majority of the nation. Imagine the power he would wield then. In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that laid down before him even when he was comparatively weak. And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?

Never mind that Kagan describes general election numbers that simply don’t exist in our democracy. What he’s really complaining about is that a President — one he happens to distrust and dislike — would have “the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military.”  Of course, Kagan focuses not on the government as a whole, but on the Deep State and the Justice Department that has increasingly become an integral part of it.

The guy who, for years, championed the unfettered exercise of the Deep State in the hands of people like Dick Cheney is now troubled about what would happen if Donald Trump got the same powers Dick Cheney had. And for what it’s worth, while I don’t buy Michael Hayden’s claim the CIA would resist a President Trump’s order to torture (Hayden’s successors at NSA and CIA will likely do just what Hayden himself did, capitulate to unconstitutional demands), I also know that neither Trump nor anyone in his immediate orbit has the kind of bureaucratic mastery of the Deep State that Dick Cheney had.

One more really important point: the Deep State — those tools Kagan is horrified Trump might soon wield — got so powerful, creating the danger that a demagogue like Trump might tap into them fully formed, largely in the service of an imperial project significantly sold by Robert Kagan. Kagan has claimed to be selling “Democracy™” around the world, but all along that project has rotted our own democracy here at home.

Kagan (and his fellow imperialists) did that. Not Trump. Trump would just take advantage of the bureaucratic tools Kagan’s propaganda has served to justify.

I’m not denying Donald Trump is a huge threat to American democracy (though I happen to think Hillary’s foreign policy will come with great risks and costs as well). I’m saying that Robert Kagan is not the one to make this argument — at least not without a whole lot of soul searching and commitment to change the underlying empowerment of “the immense powers of the American presidency.”

But Kagan doesn’t want that. Rather, he just wants to hand those powers, still unchecked, to Hillary Clinton.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Mirror Mirror and His Wall

I think I’m going to have to write a daily piece on how frantic insiders trying to squelch the populism of this year’s election (Trump, especially, but also Bernie) are, at the same time, revealing a delusional lack of self-awareness.

Today, for example, Mitt Romney will make a speech in which he will call Donald Trump phony.

And Wall Street will spend unlimited amounts of money to warn that Trump — as opposed to their own reckless practices and abuse of oligarchical position — will doom the economy.

The pitch to Wall Street titans and other CEOs is that a President Trump would be disastrous for markets and the economy. Many economists say that if the U.S. were to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in a single year, the immediate hit to gross domestic product would lead to a depression. And slapping massive tariffs on goods from Mexico and China could dramatically increase prices for U.S. consumers and create destabilizing trade wars. “The most important thing about Trump is, he is completely unpredictable and volatile, and the one thing business needs is predictability,” [GOP strategist Katie] Packer said.

Perhaps most remarkable are the bunch of Neocons who signed a letter calling Trump dangerous. In it, some of the signers who have, in the past, argued for ticking time bomb use of coercive interrogation, here call the “expansive use of torture is inexcusable.” The guy who oversaw our last effort to build a wall signed the letter complaining that asking Mexico to pay for one “inflames unhelpful passions.” A slew of past servants to the Saudi family and other vicious dictators complain about Trump’s admiration for foreign dictators (in this case, the democratically elected thug Vladimir Putin). The author of the 16 words in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union complains that Trump is “fundamentally dishonest.” And a bunch of people who worked closely with Dick Cheney as he shredded the Constitution (and at least one of whom helped make legal arguments to do so) worry that Trump’s “expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States.”

I mean, all this Sturm und Drang about Trump is nice, but maybe these folks should clean up their own act first?

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Obama Bypassed OLC on Bin Laden Killing

Obama_and_Biden_await_updates_on_bin_LadenThere’s a name missing from Charlie Savage’s latest — a description of the legal analysis behind Osama bin Laden’s killing: Caroline Krass, who served as Acting Head of DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel from January to September 2011. She’s not mentioned, apparently, because she was not among the four lawyers who collaborated on five memos deeming the raid to be legal.

Weeks before President Obama ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011, four administration lawyers hammered out rationales intended to overcome any legal obstacles — and made it all but inevitable that Navy SEALs would kill the fugitive Qaeda leader, not capture him.

[snip]

Just days before the raid, the lawyers drafted five secret memos so that if pressed later, they could prove they were not inventing after-the-fact reasons for having blessed it. “We should memorialize our rationales because we may be called upon to explain our legal conclusions, particularly if the operation goes terribly badly,” said Stephen W. Preston, the C.I.A.’s general counsel, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations.

[snip]

This account of the role of the four lawyers — Mr. Preston; Mary B. DeRosa, the National Security Council’s legal adviser; Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel; and then-Rear Adm. James W. Crawford III, the Joint Chiefs of Staff legal adviser — is based on interviews with more than a half-dozen current and former administration officials who had direct knowledge of the planning for the raid.

The account makes it quite clear that Eric Holder was excluded from discussions.

On April 28, 2011, a week before the raid, Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, proposed at least telling Mr. Holder. “I think the A.G. should be here, just to make sure,” Mr. Leiter told Ms. DeRosa.

This means that on the OBL raid, Donilon excluded the Attorney General in the same way Dick Cheney excluded John Ashcroft from key information about torture and wiretapping. I find that interesting enough, given hints that Holder raised concerns about the legal authority to kill Anwar al-Awlaki in the weeks after we missed him on December 24, 2009, which led to OLC writing two crappy memos authorizing that killing in ways that have never been all that convincing.

But Savage provides no explanation for why Krass was excluded, which is particularly interesting given that the month after OBL’s killing, Savage revealed that President Obama had blown off Krass’ advice on Libya (as I read it, the decision to blow off her advice would have happened after the OBL killing, though I am not certain on that point). The silence about Krass is also remarkable given that she was looped in on the initial Libya decision — and asked to write a really bizarre memo memorializing advice purportedly given after the fact.

On Libya, Krass was looped in on questions addressing precisely the same issues addressed in the OBL killing (indeed, we were assassinating Qaddafi’s family members in Libya, which should have presented many of the same legal questions) both before and (as I understand it) after the OBL killing, but she was apparently not read in at all on the OBL killing itself.

There’s one more reason I think the question of OBL’s killing was more uncertain than laid out here. Savage reveals that even though lawyers had authorized not telling Congress about the raid, Leon Panetta did so on his own anyway.

Mr. Preston wrote a memo addressing when the administration had to alert congressional leaders under a statute governing covert actions. Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid. But then they learned that the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had already briefed several top lawmakers about Abbottabad without White House permission.

This is the action of someone — rightly — covering his ass, doing what the law actually requires rather than what his lawyer says it permits.

By the way, any bets on whether SSCI got a copy of that Preston memo, stating that they didn’t need to be informed on covert operations, contrary to the clear language of the National Security Act, before they approved his promotion from CIA General Counsel to DOD General Counsel (where he remains)? I bet no.

Ultimately, Savage depicts an Administration going even further than Cheney had on inventing legal authorizations for secret actions. Obama (and Donilon) will never catch heat for it like Cheney did, because everyone likes dancing on OBL’s watery grave. But make no mistake, this exhibits some of the same behaviors as we criticize Cheney for.

Update: I find this, from Savage’s June 2011 story on Krass, of particular interest given Savage’s description of the decision process on OBL.

The administration followed an unusual process in developing its position. Traditionally, the Office of Legal Counsel solicits views from different agencies and then decides what the best interpretation of the law is. The attorney general or the president can overrule its views, but rarely do.

In this case, however, Ms. Krass was asked to submit the Office of Legal Counsel’s thoughts in a less formal way to the White House, along with the views of lawyers at other agencies. After several meetings and phone calls, the rival legal analyses were submitted to Mr. Obama, who is a constitutional lawyer, and he made the decision.

A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the internal deliberations, said the process was “legitimate” because “everyone knew at the end of the day this was a decision the president had to make” and the competing views were given a full airing before Mr. Obama.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

John Yoo’s Assistance in Starting Iraq War Might Help Obama Avoid an Iran War

Last week, Steven Aftergood released a January 27, 2003 OLC memo, signed by John Yoo, ruling that the Executive Branch could withhold WMD information from Congress even though 22 USC § 3282 requires the Executive to brief the Foreign Relations committees on such information. I had first noted the existence of the memo in this post (though I guessed wrong as to when it was written).

The memo is, even by Yoo’s standards, inadequate and poorly argued. As Aftergood notes, Yoo relies on a Bill Clinton signing statement that doesn’t say what he says it says. And he treats briefing Congress as equivalent to public disclosure.

Critically, a key part of the Yoo’s argument relies on an OLC memo the Reagan Administration used to excuse its failure to tell Congress that it was selling arms to Iran.

Fourth, despite Congress’s extensive powers under the Constitution, Its authorities to legislative and appropriate cannot constitutionally be exercised in a manner that would usurp the President’s authority over foreign affairs and national security. In our 1986 opinion, we reasoned that this principle had three important corollaries: a) Congress cannot directly review the President’s foreign policy decisions; b) Congress cannot condition an appropriation to require the President to relinquish his discretion in foreign affairs; and c) any statute that touches on the President’s foreign affairs power must be interpreted, so as to avoid constitutional questions, to leave the President as much discretion as possible. 10 Op. O.L.C. at 169-70.

That’s one of the things — a pretty central thing — Yoo relies on to say that, in spite of whatever law Congress passes, the Executive still doesn’t have to share matters relating to WMD proliferation if it doesn’t want to.

Thus far, I don’t think anyone has understood the delicious (if inexcusable) irony of the memo — or the likely reasons why the Obama Administration has deviated from its normal secrecy in releasing the memo now.

This memo authorized the Executive to withhold WMD information in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address

First, consider the timing. I noted above I was wrong about the timing — I speculated the memo would have been written as part of the Bush Administration’s tweaks of Executive Orders governing classification updated in March 2003.

Boy how wrong was I. Boy how inadequately cynical was I.

Nope. The memo — 7 shoddily written pages — was dated January 27, 2003.The day the White House sent a review copy of the State of the Union to CIA, which somehow didn’t get closely vetted. The day before Bush would go before Congress and deliver his constitutionally mandated State of the Union message. The day before Bush would lay out the case for the Iraq War to Congress — relying on certain claims about WMD — including 16 famous words that turned out to be a lie.

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

This memo was written during the drafting of the 2003 State of the Union to pre-approve not sharing WMD information known by the Executive Branch with Congress even in spite of laws requiring the Executive share that information.

Now, we don’t know — because Alberto Gonzales apparently didn’t tell Yoo — what thing he was getting pre-authorization not to tell Congress about. Here’s what the memo says:

It has been obtained through sensitive intelligence sources and methods and concerns proliferation activities that, depending upon information not yet available, may be attributable to one or more foreign nations. Due to your judgment of the extreme sensitivity of the information and the means by which it was obtained, you have not informed us about the nature of the information, what nation is involved, or what activities are implicated. We understand, however, that the information is of the utmost sensitivity and that it directly affects the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. You have also told us that the unauthorized disclosure of the information could directly injure the national security, compromise intelligence sources and methods, and potentially frustrate sensitive U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence activities.

Something about WMD that another nation told us that is too sensitive to share with Congress — like maybe the Brits didn’t buy the Niger forgery documents anymore?

In any case, we do know from the SSCI Report on Iraq Intelligence that an INR analyst had already determined the Niger document was a forgery.

On January 13, 2003, the INR Iraq nuclear analyst sent an e-mail to several IC analysts outlining his reasoning why, “the uranium purchase agreement probably is a hoax.” He indicated that one of the documents that purported to be an agreement for a joint military campaign, including both Iraq and Iran, was so ridiculous that it was “clearly a forgery.” Because this document had the same alleged stamps for the Nigerien Embassy in Rome as the uranium documents, the analyst concluded “that the uranium purchase agreement probably is a forgery.” When the CIA analyst received the e-mail, he realized that WINP AC did not have copies of the documents and requested copies from INR. CIA received copies of the foreign language documents on January 16, 2003.

Who knows? Maybe the thing Bush wanted to hide from Congress, the day before his discredited 2003 State of the Union, didn’t even have to do with Iraq. But we know there has been good reason to question whether Bush’s aides deliberately misinformed Congress in that address, and now we know John Yoo pre-approved doing so.

This memo means Obama doesn’t have to share anything about the Iran deal it doesn’t want to

Here’s the ironic part — and one I only approve of for the irony involved, not for the underlying expansive interpretation of Executive authority.

By releasing this memo just a week before the Iran deal debate heats up, the Obama Administration has given public (and Congressional, to the extent they’re paying attention) notice that it doesn’t believe it has to inform Congress of anything having to do with WMD it deems too sensitive. John Yoo says so. Reagan’s OLC said so, in large part to ensure that no one would go to prison for disobeying Congressional notice requirements pertaining to Iran-Contra.

If you think that’s wrong, you have to argue the Bush Administration improperly politicized intelligence behind the Iraq War. You have to agree that the heroes of Iran-Contra — people like John Poindexter, who signed onto a letter opposing the Iran deal — should be rotting in prison. That is, the opponents of the Iran deal — most of whom supported both the Iraq War and Iran-Contra — have to argue Republican Presidents acted illegally in those past actions.

Me? I do argue Bush improperly withheld information from Congress leading up to the Iraq War. I agree that Poindexter and others should have gone to prison in Iran-Contra.

I also agree that Obama should be forthcoming about whatever his Administration knows about the terms of the Iran deal, even while I believe the deal will prevent war (and not passing the deal will basically irretrievably fuck the US with the international community).

A key thing that will be debated extensively in coming days — largely because the AP, relying on an echo chamber of sources that has proven wrong in the past, published an underreported article on it — is whether the inspection of Parchin is adequate. Maybe that echo chamber is correct, and the inspection is inadequate. More importantly, maybe it is the case that people within the Administration — in spite of IAEA claims that it has treated that deal with the same confidentiality it gives to other inspection protocols made with inspected nations  — know the content of the Parchin side agreement. Maybe the Administration knows about it, and believes it to be perfectly adequate, because it was spying on the IAEA, like it long has, but doesn’t want the fact that it was spying on IAEA to leak out. Maybe the Administration knows about the Parchin deal but has other reasons not to worry about what Iran was allegedly (largely alleged by AP’s sources on this current story) doing at Parchin.

The point is, whether you’re pro-Iran deal or anti-Iran deal, whether you’re worried about the Parchin side agreement or not, John Yoo gave Barack Obama permission to withhold it from Congress, in part because Reagan’s OLC head gave him permission to withhold Iran-Contra details from Congress.

I believe this document Yoo wrote to help Bush get us into the Iraq War may help Obama stay out of an Iran war.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.