John Ashcroft

The “Heroes” of the Hospital Confrontation Brief the FISC

I’m going to have several posts on the documents released yesterday, starting with the Internet dragnet opinion and the phone dragnet application.

But to give those two background, I want to look at a passage in the Internet dragnet opinion, in which Colleen Kollar-Kotelly describes a fascinating briefing that she received in advance of authoring what Orin Kerr describes as a “quite strange” opinion.

After describing some declarations she received (including one from a person whose title remains redacted) and some questions she posed, she describes this briefing.

The Court also relies on information and arguments presented in a briefing to the Court on [redacted] which addressed the current and near-term threats posed by [redacted reference to Al Qaeda and others], investigations conducted by the Federal Bureau of investigation (FBI) to counter those threats, the proposed collection activities of the NSA (now described in the instant application), the expected analytical value of information so collected in efforts to identify and track operatives [redacted] and the legal bases for conducting these collection activities under FISA’s pen register/trap and trace provisions. 4

4 This briefing was attended by (among others) the Attorney General; [redacted] the DIRNSA; the Director of the FBI; the Counsel to the President; the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel; the Director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC); and Counsel for Intelligence Policy.

That is, right at the beginning of her opinion, Kollar-Kotelly tells us that she had a briefing with:

  • AG John Ashcroft
  • [redacted]
  • DIRNSA Michael Hayden
  • FBI Director Robert Mueller
  • Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzales
  • AAG for OLC Jack Goldsmith
  • TTIC Director John Brennan
  • Counsel for OIPR James Baker

On page 30, Kollar-Kotelly seems to refer to the same redacted person again, which in the context of the reference to CIA v. Sims in that footnote, seems to suggest this is a reference to CIA Director George Tenet, which suggests the redacted author of the brief she relied on was authored by Tenet. (I leave open the more tantalizing possibility that it’s someone like Dick Cheney, but highly doubt it.)

So before she approved the use of FISA’s Pen Register to collect much of the Internet metadata in the US, she had a meeting with at least one of the villains — Alberto Gonzales — of the hospital confrontation at which DOJ refused to reauthorize the Internet metadata program that was part of the President’s illegal wiretap program, and at least three of its “heroes:” Ashcroft, Mueller, and Goldsmith.

Interestingly, this meeting does not appear — at least not described as such — in the Draft NSA IG Report description of the transition to a FISC order.

After extensive coordination, DoJ and NSA devised the PRITT theory to which the Chief Judge of the FISC seemed amenable. DoJ and NSA worked closely over the following months, exchanging drafts of the application, preparing declarations, and responding to questions from court advisers. NSA representatives explained the capabilities that were needed to recreate the Authority, and DoJ personnel devised a workable legal basis to meet those needs. In April 2004, NSA briefed Judge Kollar-Kotelly and a law clerk because Judge Kollar-Kotelly was researching the impact of using PSP-derived information in FISA applications. In May 2004, NSA personnel provided a technical briefmg on NSA collection of bulk Internet metadata to Judge Kollar-Kotelly. In addition, General Hayden said he met with Judge Kollar-Kotelly on two successive Saturdays during the summer of 2004 to discuss the on-going efforts.

Was this “briefing” one of the Saturday meetings Hayden had with FISC’s Presiding Judge?

Remember, David Kris described the genesis of the bulk collection programs this way, in a paper emphasizing the role of the Internet dragnet.

More broadly, it is important to consider the context in which the FISA Court initially approved the bulk collection. Unverified media reports (discussed above) state that bulk telephony metadata collection was occurring before May 2006; even if that is not the case, perhaps such collection could have occurred at that time based on voluntary cooperation from the telecommunications providers. If so, the practical question before the FISC in 2006 was not whether the collection should occur, but whether it should occur under judicial standards and supervision, or unilaterally under the authority of the Executive Branch.

[snip]

The briefings and other historical evidence raise the question whether Congress’s repeated reauthorization of the tangible things provision effectively incorporates the FISC’s interpretation of the law, at least as to the authorized scope of collection, such that even if it had been erroneous when first issued, it is now—by definition—correct. [my emphasis]

The Internet dragnet was illegal. At least 3 of the people who conveyed the importance of authorizing this program had said so — in very dramatic fashion — less than four months before she would do so.

And yet she wrote a memo saying it was legal.

What Happened to that Third Branch Oversight?

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is pissed.

After spending 2002 to 2006 as Chief Judge of the FISA Court struggling to keep parts of the American legal system walled off from a rogue surveillance program, she read the classified account the NSA’s Inspector General wrote of her efforts. And while that report does say Kollar-Kotelly was the only one who managed to sneak a peek at a Presidential Authorization authorizing the illegal program, she doesn’t believe it reflects the several efforts she made to reel in the program.

“In my view, that draft report contains major omissions, and some inaccuracies, regarding the actions I took as Presiding Judge of the FISC and my interactions with Executive Branch officials,” Kollar-Kotelly said in a statement to The Post.

[snip]

Kollar-Kotelly disputed the NSA report’s suggestion of a fairly high level of coordination between the court and the NSA and Justice in 2004 to re-create certain authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that created the court in response to abuses of domestic surveillance in the 1960s and 1970s.

“That is incorrect,” she said. “I participated in a process of adjudication, not ‘coordination’ with the executive branch. The discussions I had with executive branch officials were in most respects typical of how I and other district court judges entertain applications for criminal wiretaps under Title III, where issues are discussed ex parte.”

The WaPo story reporting on her objections makes no mention of the role one FISC law clerk — who got briefed into the program before any of the other FISC judges — played in this process, something I’m pretty curious about.

It does, however, recall two incidents where Kollar-Kotelly took measures to crack down on the illegal program, which Carol Leonnig reported back in 2006.

Both [Kollar-Kotelly and her predecessor Royce Lamberth] expressed concern to senior officials that the president’s program, if ever made public and challenged in court, ran a significant risk of being declared unconstitutional, according to sources familiar with their actions. Yet the judges believed they did not have the authority to rule on the president’s power to order the eavesdropping, government sources said, and focused instead on protecting the integrity of the FISA process.

[snip]

In 2004, [DOJ Office of Intelligence Policy and Review Counsel James] Baker warned Kollar-Kotelly he had a problem with [a "federal screening system that the judges had insisted upon to shield the court from tainted information"]. He had concluded that the NSA was not providing him with a complete and updated list of the people it had monitored, so Justice could not definitively know — and could not alert the court — if it was seeking FISA warrants for people already spied on, government officials said.

Kollar-Kotelly complained to then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, and her concerns led to a temporary suspension of the program. The judge required that high-level Justice officials certify the information was complete — or face possible perjury charges.

In 2005, Baker learned that at least one government application for a FISA warrant probably contained NSA information that was not made clear to the judges, the government officials said. Some administration officials explained to Kollar-Kotelly that a low-level Defense Department employee unfamiliar with court disclosure procedures had made a mistake.

Though the NSA IG Report mentions violations that occurred before 2003, it makes no mention of these violations.

What good is an IG Report that gives no idea of how often and persistent violations are?

That said, today’s WaPo story provides this as the solution to our distorted view of the FISA Court’s role in rubber-stamping this massive dragnet.

A former senior Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity, said he believes the government should consider releasing declassified summaries of relevant opinions.

“I think it would help” quell the “furor” raised by the recent disclosures, he said. “In this current environment, you may have to lean forward a little more in declassifying stuff than you otherwise would. You might be able to prepare reasonable summaries that would be helpful to the American people.”

Back in 2006, Leonnig noted that the judges didn’t believe they had the authority to intervene to stop the dragnet. So what good does a ruling — even two as broad and stunning as the ones that used Pen Registers and Business Records to collect the contact records of all Americans — do to depict the role the Court is in?

The Administration keeps pointing to this narrowly authorized court as real court review. But that’s not what it is. And until we have a better sense of how that manifested in the past (and continues to — I’ll bet you a quarter that they’ve moved the Internet data mining to some area outside of court purview), we’re not going to understand how to provide real oversight to this dragnet.

We’d be far better off having the FISC provide its own history of these surveillance programs.

How David Addington Hid the Document Implicating George Bush in Illegal Wiretapping

On December 16 and December 20, 2005, respectively — just days after the NYT revealed its existence — EPIC and ACLU FOIAed DOJ for documents relating to George Bush’s (really, Dick Cheney’s) illegal wiretap program (National Security Archive also FOIAed, though more narrowly). Among other documents, they requested, “any presidential order(s) authorizing the NSA to engage in warrantless electronic surveillance.” Yet in spite of the fact that the ACLU was eventually able to get DOJ to cough up some of the OLC memos that provided a legal rationale for the program, no presidential order was ever turned over. I don’t believe (though could be mistaken) it was even disclosed in declarations submitted by Steven Bradbury in the suit.

There’s a very good (and, sadly, legal) reason for that. According to the 2009 NSC draft IG report the Guardian released yesterday, it’s not clear DOJ ever had the Authorization. The White House is exempt from FOIA, and it’s likely that NSA could have withheld the contents of the Director’s safe from any FOIA, which is where the hard copy of the Authorization was kept.

It’s worth looking more closely at how David Addington guarded the Authorization, because it provides a lesson in how a President can evade all accountability for unleashing vast powers against Americans, and how the National Security establishment will willingly participate in such a scheme without ensuring what they’re doing is really legal.

The IG report describes the initial Authorization this way:

On 4 October 2001, President George W. Bush issued a memorandum entitled “AUTHORIZATION FOR SPECIFIED ELECTRONIC ACTIVITIES DURING A LIMITED PERIOD TO DETECT AND PREVENT ACTS OF TERRORISM WITHIN THE UNITED STATES.” The memorandum was based on the President’s determination that after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, an extraordinary emergency existed for national defense purposes.

[snip]

The authorization specified that the NSA could acquire the content and associated metadata of telephony and Internet communications for which there was probable cause to believe that one of the communicants was in Afghanistan or that one communicant was engaged in or preparing for acts of international terrorism. In addition, NSA was authorized to acquire telephone and Internet metadata for communications with at least one communicant outside the United States or for which no communicant was known to be a citizen of the United States. NSA was allowed to retain, process, analyze and disseminate intelligence from the communications acquired under the authority.

And while the NSA IG report doesn’t say it, the Joint IG Report on the program (into which this NSA report was integrated) reveals these details:

Each of the Presidential Authorizations included a finding to the effect that an extraordinary emergency continued to exist, and that the circumstances “constitute an urgent and compelling governmental interest” justifying the activities being authorized without a court order.

Each Presidential authorization also included a requirement to maintain the secrecy of the activities carried out under the program.

David Addington’s illegal program

While the Joint report obscures all these details, the NSA IG report makes clear that Dick Cheney and David Addington were the braintrust behind the program.

The Counsel to the Vice President used [a description of SIGINT collection gaps provided by Michael Hayden] to draft the Presidential authorization that established the PSP.

Neither President Bush nor White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote this Authorization. David Addington did. Continue reading

Blackwater’s Slap on the Wrist for Gun Smuggling and Arms Trafficking

Viewed from one perspective the facts that Blackwater has admitted to amount to running guns–precisely the crime that Fast and Furious attempted to combat. Viewed from another perspective, Blackwater’s actions amount to the same kind of thing Viktor Bout is in prison for: making weapons deals with sanctioned entities.

But Blackwater will suffer no more than a wrist slap for such things: a $7.5 million fine, a third of which can be credited to implementing a compliance system that is substantially already in place, as well as a $42 million Consent Agreement fine it signed two years ago. (It has paid two $6 million installments of the $42 million fine it owes to State Department; even while it continues to get contracts with State)

That doesn’t make the Deferred Prosecution Agreement any less funny.

There are the repeated lists of all the aliases of Blackwater–by my count some 37 companies or subsidiaries. Just in case you needed master list of how many times it has tried to change its identity.

There’s the bragging about Blackwater’s new compliance structure (paid for, presumably, as part of this fine), featuring John Ashcroft (the monitor on one of the most corrupt DPAs ever) and former AIG (AIG?!?!?!) compliance whiz Suzanne Folsom.

There’s the way it says Blackwater can’t charge the government any aspect of its fine (what is left after its credit for compliance infrastructure, that is). Only in DPAs is money not fungible, I guess.

There’s the way they try to guard against Blackwater rebranding again (the DPA is written in the name Academi and invokes Xe) by selling itself to someone else. (There’s apparently an Erik Prince declaration I’m going to have to chase down tomorrow.)

And there’s the way that of those who signed this DPA for Blackwater, only the name of the attorney is included in the text.

Now maybe I shouldn’t be laughing so hard. The DPA implies that the US Attorney in North Carolina’s Eastern District, Thomas Walker, is still investigating. Maybe Erik Prince will go to jail? Ha!

But this DPA is more a case study in the myriad ways corporate entities escape all justice in this day and age than any real accountability for the same kind of actions we impose stiff sentences on others for.

As always, the lesson is if you’re going to commit crimes, do it as a corporation.

Scalia Invents a New Meaning for “Suspicion” while Letting Ashcroft Off the Hook

SCOTUS has just ruled unanimously that John Ashcroft can’t be sued by Abdullah al-Kidd for using a material witness warrant to incarcerate him. The 8 justices (Elena Kagan recused herself) all agree there was no law explicitly prohibiting this kind of abuse of material witness warrants, so Ashcroft has immunity from suit.

Where the decision gets interesting is in the justices’ various statements about whether material witness warrants are valid under the Fourth Amendment. The court’s swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, basically invited a constitutional challenge of the material witness warrants themselves.

The scope of the statute’s lawful authorization is uncertain. For example, a law-abiding citizen might observe a crime during the days or weeks before a scheduled flight abroad. It is unclear whether those facts alone might allow police to obtain a material witness warrant on the ground that it “may become impracticable” to secure the person’s presence by subpoena. Ibid. The question becomes more difficult if one further assumes the traveler would be willing to testify if asked; and more difficult still if one supposes that authorities delay obtaining or executing the warrant until the traveler has arrived at the airport. These possibilities resemble the facts in this case. See ante, at 2.

In considering these issues, it is important to bear in mind that the Material Witness Statute might not provide for the issuance of warrants within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Clause. The typical arrest warrant is based on probable cause that the arrestee has committed a crime; but that is not the standard for the issuance of warrants under the Material Witness Statute. See ante, at 11 (reserving the possibility that probable cause for purposes of the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Clause means “only probable cause to suspect a violation of law”). If material witness warrants do not qualify as “Warrants” under the Fourth Amendment, then material witness arrests might still be governed by the Fourth Amendment’s separate reasonableness requirement for seizures of the person. See United States v. Watson, 423 U. S. 411 (1976). Given the difficulty of these issues, the Court is correct to address only the legal theory put before it, without further exploring when material witness ar-rests might be consistent with statutory and constitutional requirements.

Mind you, he remains coy about what he thinks about the material witness warrants, as his language makes clear: “uncertain,” “might,” “unclear,” “more difficult,” “more difficult,” “possibilities,” “might not,” “might.”  Of note, though, he neither endorses a rather crazy argument Antonin Scalia makes (joined by the usual suspects)–that witnesses to a crime may now be considered suspects of a sort–nor Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s trashing (joined by Sotomayor and Breyer but not Kennedy) of that claim.

Here’s Scalia’s assertion:

Needless to say, warrantless, “suspicionless intrusions pursuant to a general scheme,” id., at 47, are far removed from the facts of this case. A warrant issued by a neutral Magistrate Judge authorized al-Kidd’s arrest. The affidavit accompanying the warrant application (as al-Kidd concedes) gave individualized reasons to believe that he was a material witness and that he would soon disappear.The existence of a judicial warrant based on individualized suspicion takes this case outside the domain of not only our special-needs and administrative-search cases, but of Edmond as well.

A warrant based on individualized suspicion in fact grants more protection against the malevolent and the incompetent than existed in most of our cases eschewing inquiries into intent.

Here’s Ginsburg’s response:

The Court thrice states that the material witness warrant for al-Kidd’s arrest was “based on individualized suspicion.” Ante, at 6, 8. The word “suspicion,” however, ordinarily indicates that the person suspected has engaged in wrongdoing. See Black’s Law Dictionary 1585 (9th ed. 2009) (defining “reasonable suspicion” to mean “[a] particularized and objective basis, supported by specific and articulable facts, for suspecting a person of criminal activity”). Material witness status does not “involv[e] suspicion, or lack of suspicion,” of the individual so identified. See Illinois v. Lidster, 540 U. S. 419, 424–425 (2004).This Court’s decisions, until today, have uniformly used the term “individualized suspicion” to mean “individualized suspicion of wrong-doing.”

[12 cases--many of them the ones used to authorized warrantless wiretaps--cited]

The Court’s suggestion that the term “individualized suspicion” is more commonly associated with “know[ing] something about [a] crime” or “throwing . . . a surprise birthday party” than with criminal suspects, ante, at 6, n. 2 (internal quotation marks omitted), is hardly credible. The import of the term in legal argot is not genuinely debatable. When the evening news reports that a murder “suspect” is on the loose, the viewer is meant to be on the lookout for the perpetrator, not the witness. Ashcroft understood the term as lawyers commonly do: He spoke of detaining material witnesses as a means to “tak[e] suspected terrorists off the street.” App. 41 (internal quotation marks omitted).

And here’s Scalia’s retort to that:

JUSTICE GINSBURG suggests that our use of the word “suspicion” is peculiar because that word “ordinarily” means “that the person suspected has engaged in wrongdoing.” Post, at 3, n. 2 (opinion concurring in judgment). We disagree. No usage of the word is more common and idiomatic than a statement such as “I have a suspicion he knows something about the crime,” or even “I have a suspicion she is throwing me a surprise birthday party.” The many cases cited by JUSTICE GINSBURG, post, at 3, n. 2, which use the neutral word “suspicion” in connection with wrongdoing, prove nothing except that searches and seizures for reasons other than suspected wrongdoing are rare.

In other words, Scalia wants to broaden the Fourth Amendment to sanction searches (and arrests) of people suspected of knowing something or doing something (throwing a birthday party!), rather than just those suspected of doing something illegal.

Not only does Scalia’s novel interpretation of the word “suspicion” pre-empt future challenge to material witness warrants’ constitutionality, but it also lays a novel groundwork for sanctioning all the domestic surveillance the government has been conducting. After all, the government is wiretapping (or tracking the geolocation of) people who may or may not have committed a crime, but are suspected solely of talking to or hanging out in the vicinity of a suspected terrorist.

And because Kennedy didn’t tip his hand in either direction, that’s the kind of interpretation the government will use–no doubt in its secret interpretations of the laws–to claim it can surveill even those of us suspected of no crime.

Because suspicion doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

Beneficiary of Revolving Door Pork to Head Blackwater Ethics Committee

As Spencer reports, former Attorney General John Ashcroft just got named the-Company-formerly-known-as-Blackwater’s ethics chief.

The consortium in charge of restructuring the world’s most infamous private security firm just added a new chief in charge of keeping the company on the straight and narrow. Yes, John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, is now an “independent director” of Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater.

Ashcroft will head Xe’s new “subcommittee on governance,” its backers announced early Wednesday in a statement, an entity designed to “maximize governance, compliance and accountability” and “promote the highest degrees of ethics and professionalism within the private security industry.”

And while Spencer catalogs many of the reasons this is absurd…

To some, Ashcroft will be forever known as the face of Bush-era counterterrorism, the official who vigorously defended the Patriot Act’s sweeping surveillance powers; told civil libertarians that their dissents “only aid terrorists“; and covered up the Spirit of Justice’s boob.

He misses one of Ashcroft’s key ethical highlights: how he benefited from close ties to his former subordinate Chris Christie when he won a tens of million dollar contract to monitor a medical device company after it signed a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with Christie.

Are federal prosecutors using corporate crime prosecutions to reward cronies?

That seems to be the case in New Jersey, where U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie appointed his ex-boss, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, to be the corporate monitor of a company involved in a $311 million deferred prosecution agreement (pdf) with Christie’s office. The company in question, Zimmer Holdings, along with several other medical equipment manufacturers, was accused of paying kickbacks to get doctors to use their artificial hip and knee reconstruction and replacement products.

Ashcroft’s consulting firm, the Ashcroft Group LLC, will earn between $29 million and $52 million (paid by Zimmer Holdings) to serve as a corporate watchdog for 18 months. It will oversee Zimmer Holdings, making sure it does not engage in misconduct and helping it adopt corporate reforms. As head of the Department of Justice, Ashcroft was Christie’s boss from 2002 to 2005. Christie also served on an advisory panel that consulted regularly with the Attorney General.

Effectively, DPAs under Christie were a means of privatizing justice; Christie even justified limiting fines by pointing to the huge contracting fees his former DOJ buddies would get for monitoring the deal.

And so it’s utterly appropriate that Ashcroft would head to the poster child for everything wrong with privatization to make sure it complies with some kind of ethics.

Another Secret OLC Opinion: This One on Information Sharing

As MadDog and I were discussing on this thread, the May 6, 2004 Jack Goldsmith opinion on the warrantless wiretap program references an OLC opinion that appears not to have been publicly released or, even in the course of FOIA, disclosed.

Thus, this Office will typically construe a general statute, even one that is written in unqualified terms, to be implicitly limited so as not to infringe on the President’s Commander-in-Chief powers. Cf, id. at 464-66 (applying avoidance canon even where statute created no ambiguity on its face). Only if Congress provides a clear indication that it is attempting to regulate the President’s authority as Commander in Chief and in the realm of national security will we construe the statute to apply.19

19. For example, this Office has concluded that, despite statutory restrictions upon the use of Title III wiretap information and restrictions on the use of grand jury information under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e), the President has an inherent constitutional authority to receive all foreign intelligence information in the hands of the government necessary for him to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities and that statutes and rules should be understood to include an implied exception so as not to interfere with that authority. See Memorandum for the Deputy Attorney General from Jay S. Bybee, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Effect of the Patriot Act on Disclosure to the President and Other Federal Officials of Grand Jury and Title III Information Relating to National Security and Foreign Affairs 1 (July 22, 2002);

This is probably a memo examining what kind of limits section 203 of the PATRIOT Act impose on Executive Branch officials. That section permits the sharing of Grand Jury and Title III wiretap information with the intelligence community–even information pertaining to US persons. But it requires that, “any Federal official who receives information pursuant to this provision may use that information only as necessary in the conduct of that person’s official duties subject to any limitations on the unauthorized disclosure of such information.”

Continue reading

The Crooks Trying to Bail-Out Alberto Gonzales

Let me start by stating that the words “legal” and “trust” don’t belong on a letterhead with Alberto Gonzales’ name blazoned at the top.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the letter soliciting donations for a legal defense fund for AGAG (linked by Main Justice). It’s the number of signers who were deeply embroiled in Bush Administration corruption. Starting, appropriately enough, with Bush himself.

President and Mrs. Bush have already made substantial gifts to the Judge’s legal expense fund.

But then there are people like Gale Norton, who resigned just as Gonzales’ DOJ began investigating an oil-trading scandal and who later was investigated for a slimy deal with her future employer, Shell Oil. Or Alphonso Jackson, who was also investigated by DOJ for cronyism in HUD contracts. Or Margaret Spellings, who declined to crack down on the pay-to-play scandal in the student loan business. Or Hank Paulson, who was buddying up to Goldman Sachs even as he was crafting out a bailout for them. I’d raise Condi and Rummy and torture; but then, Gonzales was involved as deeply as they were in torture.

Then again, the number of corrupt people soliciting money to pay off Gonzales’ legal bills may just be a function of the corruption in the Bush Administration. Because almost all of Bush’s cabinet secretaries signed this letter. So much so, that the people who didn’t sign may be more interesting than anything else. There are a number minor players here: former Department of Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, former Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige, former Ag Secretary Ann Veneman.

But there are three notable omissions among the major Secretaries: John Ashcroft, Paul O’Neill, and Colin Powell.

Oh, and one more rather notable Bush Administration guy missing from the list of people trying to help Gonzales out of his legal defense hole–a guy known to be rather fond of legal defense funds, in fact, for the right people: Dick Cheney.

Why doesn’t Dick Cheney want to help Alberto Gonzales pay for protecting the Bush Administration?

Eric Holder’s Defense of Ashcroft to Defend the Material Witness Statute

The NYT has a worthwhile editorial lambasting the Obama DOJ’s pursuit of SCOTUS review in Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, which will probably result in expanded immunity for government officials that abuse the law so as to abuse the rights of Americans. The editorial focuses closely on the way in which DOJ’s defense of absolute immunity amounts to a defense of using the material witness law as an improper basis for detention.

Prosecutorial immunity is intended to let prosecutors enforce the law without fear of being held personally liable. Protecting that legitimate aim did not require the administration to defend the indefensible. In forcefully defending the material witness statute on grounds that curtailing it would severely limit its usefulness, it is defending the law as a basis for detention. That leaves the disturbing impression that the administration is trying to preserve the option of abusing the statute again.

In other words, NYT argues that DOJ’s SCOTUS appeal in this case is as much about preserving the improper use of the material witness statute–to hold a person under the material witness statute so you can conduct an investigation into him–as it is about the immunity per se.

Of course it is.

After all, this is what Eric Holder (along with Janet Reno and two others) had to say about the material witness statute in 2004.

Even when there is insufficient evidence to charge a citizen with a crime, the material witness statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3144, permits the detention of a person whose testimony is “material in a criminal proceeding” if “it may become impracticable to secure the presence of the person by subpoena.” This statute is an effective counter-terrorism tool for several reasons. Because a grand jury investigation is a “criminal proceeding” for purposes of this statute, see United States v. Awadallah, 349 F.3d 42, 49-64 (2d Cir. 2003); Bacon v. United States, 449 F.2d 933, 939-41 (9th Cir. 1971), and because of the broad scope of grand jury investigations, see supra p. 11, the government can detain a suspected terrorist as a material witness before it has evidence sufficient to support a criminal arrest or indictment.

The government can obtain a material witness warrant with relative ease. For a grand jury witness, the required showing can be made by a good faith statement by a prosecutor or investigating agent that the witness has information material to the grand jury. Bacon, 449 F.2d at 943; Awadallah, 349 F.3d at 65-66. Nor would establishing that a suspected terrorist poses a flight risk be an onerous task. See 349 F.3d at 69 (bail denied in part because witness failed to come forward with material testimony concerning terrorist attack). [my emphasis]

Mind you, in its Cert Petition, the government doesn’t admit that the material statute really was used in al-Kidd’s case to hold him even though the government had insufficient evidence to do so.

First, respondent claimed that, in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, petitioner implemented a policy of using the material witness statute as a pretextual tool to investigate and detain terrorism suspects whom the government lacked probable cause to charge criminally. Respondent alleged that he was arrested as a result of this alleged policy, which he contended violated the Fourth Amendment. [my emphasis]

So even though a document–signed by the current Attorney General at a time when al-Kidd was still subject to restricted movement–boasts about how easy it is to use of the material witness statute to hold people without sufficient evidence to do so, DOJ calls this use of the material witness statute “alleged.”

I guess if they admitted this was an intentional policy, it’d be harder to get SCOTUS to wink at its use going forward.

Update: harpie’s right. This is an editorial, not an op-ed.

Will SCOTUS Give Ashcroft Immunity in Ashcroft v. al-Kidd?

SCOTUS decided today to take John Ashcroft’s appeal of a 9th Circuit decision finding that he did not have immunity from suit in using the material witness statute to illegally hold someone without probable cause.

The Supreme Court, finishing its first sitting of the new Term, agreed on Monday to hear a single new case, a plea by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for immunity to a lawsuit claiming he misused a federal anti-terrorism law.   The Court, among denied cases, refused to hear a new challenge to the denial of voting rights to individuals when they are serving time in prison.

The Court limited its review of the new terrorism case (Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd, 10-98) to two issues: whether Ashcroft is entitled to absolute immunity in a case involving a detention under the federal “material witness” law, and whether he is entitled at least to qualified immunity to a Fourth Amendment claim.  The Court did not grant review of a third issue, involving the former Justice Department chief’s liability for false statements by a federal agent — apparently because the challenger has dropped that claim.  Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the Court’s action, presumably because she had some prior role in the case as U.S. Solicitor General.

This is worrisome, not just because it’s another example of how Elena Kagan’s recusal on all these cases give the court an inherent conservative bias (even assuming Kagan will be better on executive power issues than I think she will be), but because by taking the case SCOTUS seems to suggest the 9th Circuit decision deserves more scrutiny.

The case concerns the arrest and detention for 16 days of Abdullah al-Kidd. After he was released, he was held on what amounts to probation for over a year, though he never did testify.

ACLU’s lead attorney on the case, Lee Gelernt, seems to have the same worry: Gelernt is pushing to have the 9th Circuit decision upheld.

Arresting and detaining someone for an extended period without probable cause to believe he violated the law goes against the most basic principles on which our country is founded. The appeals court made it very clear that former Attorney General Ashcroft could be held personally responsible if he used the material witness law to circumvent the Constitution’s longstanding rule that a suspect may not be arrested without probable cause of wrongdoing. The appeals court opinion was the right one, and the Supreme Court should uphold that decision. Government architects of policies that so clearly defy the Constitution must be held accountable to the law.

Presumably, immunity for Ashcroft here will extend to other Administration officials who trample rights in the guise of fighting terrorism.

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bmaz Also for AG RT @gideonstrumpet A public service letter from a publc defender: Consider carefully when you vote for DA http://t.co/dzF9b4q7c5
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bmaz @samsteinhp Doesn't this mean there should be no traffic laws then? cc: @KagroX
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bmaz RT @timothypmurphy: The world will know their names. RT @elisefoley: Politico and The Hill add their URLs when you copy and paste. Shame th…
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emptywheel Spent 4 hours showing US journos as complete stenographers for CIA. Now to spend 4 on NSA's stenographers... @billmon's working on State's
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emptywheel RT @billmon1: Somebody with actual chops has taken over Kyiv govt's disinformation ops. So I guess John. Brennan's visit accomplished somet…
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emptywheel RT @billmon1: MSM coverage of Donetsk leaflets shows vast superiority of docile, vetted, deftly manipulated semi-official media vs direct s…
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emptywheel @Krhawkins5 Also suspect SSCI has proof they knew.
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emptywheel @Krhawkins5 But the other lies in the OLC memo are far graver.
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bmaz .@yvonnewingett @Andy_Tobin Accurate? No of course not, Tobin not in Congress. Impt point is Tobin voted to DENY Arizona citizens healthcare
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bmaz For coverage of the 10th Cir #SSM case this afternoon, follow @nancyleong
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emptywheel It took John Rizzo just 64 words of memoir to complete first lie. Yet journos still treat him as honest interlocutor. http://t.co/OoEQwhDhRK
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emptywheel A Guide to John Rizzo’s Lies, For Lazy Journalists http://t.co/YfPsXVeVpN
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April 2014
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