Publicizing Pixie Dust

Updated with Selise’s YouTube. Thanks Selise!

As a number of you pointed out in comments discussing Russ Feingold’s secret law hearing that took place while I was on my trip, NYT believes that Pixie Dust–the process by which the President can "modify" his own executive orders by simply ignoring them–has never before been publicized.

At the hearing, a department official, John P. Elwood, disclosed a previously unpublicized method to cloak government activities. Mr. Elwood acknowledged that the administration believed that the president could ignore or modify existing executive orders that he or other presidents have issued without disclosing the new interpretation. [my emphasis]

By "unpublicized," I guess they mean "never before scarred a dead tree," because Sheldon Whitehouse gave a great speech about it, I wrote a whole series of posts about it, and Selise’s YouTube of Whitehouse’s speech got a whole bunch of views.

Which, I guess, is a great way to introduce the news I just got today: my Guardian column on Pixie Dust is a finalist for Project Censored from last year–one of the twenty-five most important but under-covered stories from last year.


Which makes the following exchange all the more ironic. When I reviewed the Senate webcast from the hearing, I couldn’t help but appreciate the drama of Sheldon Whitehouse discussing the shoddy bases on which Bush’s three assertions of Presidential super-legality depend. As designated Adminsitrative Unitary Executive David Rivkin apologist tried to defend these opinions, he complained that he couldn’t see the whole opinion.

Uh huh. Now you’re getting it!

Here’s Whitehouse, describing the precedents on which these opinions rely (my transcript, all mistakes my own).

Then you see something like this [points to the Executive Order opinion]; I won’t go through it it’s been in the testimony already. That’s a pretty alarming proposition, that an executive order is just ignorable willy-nilly with no reporting. And when it became apparent that I was going to release this and I had it declassified, I was told it stands on precedent, and when they told me what the precedent was, the precedent was a Griffin Bell opinion that said the President can legally revoke or supersede an executive order at will.

Of course the President can legally revoke or supersede an executive order at will! There’s a process for doing that. That’s a completely different proposition than saying that the executive can use the executive orders of this country as a screen behind which they can operate programs directly contrary to the text of the executive order.

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Surely They’ll Resort to Pixie Dust on This

MadDog linked to this while I was away at the dentist, but since I’m a big fan of both Secrecy News and of Bill Leonard, I wanted to highlight it in a post of its own.

Bill Leonard, who until Cheney chased him away last December, was the person overseeing the Information Security Oversight Office (making him one of the top people in the government overseeing the use of classification and declassification). He confirms what we’ve been saying: the classification surrounding the Torture Memo was improper.

“The disappointment I feel with respect to the abuse of the classification system in this instance is profound,” said Mr. Leonard, who recently retired as director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which reports to the President on classification and declassification policy.

“The document in question (pdf) is purely a legal analysis,” he said, and it contains “nothing which would justify classification.”

Beyond that crucial fact, the binding technical requirements of classification were ignored.

Thus, he explained: There were no portion markings, identifying which paragraphs were classified at what level. The original classifier was not identified on the cover page by name or position. The duration of classification was not given. A concise basis for classification was not specified. Yet all of these are explicitly required by the President’s executive order on classification.

“It is not even apparent that [John] Yoo [who authored the memo] had original classification authority,” Mr. Leonard said.

“All too often, government officials simply assert classification. To enjoy the legal safeguards of the classification system, you need to do more than that. Those basic, elemental steps were not followed in this instance.”

“Also, for the Department of Defense to declassify a Department of Justice document,” as in this case, “is highly irregular,” Mr. Leonard said.

(The DoD declassifier mistakenly cited “Executive Order 1958″ on the cover page of the declassified memorandum. The correct citation is “Executive Order 12958, as amended.”)

Violations of classification policy pale in comparison to the policy deviations authorized by the Justice Department memo, which was ultimately rescinded. Nevertheless, such classification violations are significant because they enabled the Administration to pursue its interrogation policies without independent scrutiny or accountability.

“To learn that such a document is classified has the same effect for me as waking up one morning and learning that after all these years there is a ’secret’ Article IV to the Constitution that the American people did not even know about,” said Mr. Leonard. [my emphasis]

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Whitehouse Reveals Smoking Gun of White House Claiming Not to Be Bound by Any Law

Damn, I love me some Sheldon Whitehouse. He, like, actually knows the law. And he, like, is willing to actually read the stuff he is exercising oversight over.

Which is why this speech he gave today is so important (link to speech; here’s a link to video). Apparently, Whitehouse actually read the OLC opinions that justified the warrantless wiretap program and continue to justify the Administration’s wiretap authority today. Then, Whitehouse got the key concepts of some of those opinions declassified. Here’s his description of what he found.

For years under the Bush Administration, the Office of Legal Counsel within the Department of Justice has issued highly classified secret legal opinions related to surveillance. This is an administration that hates answering to an American court, that wants to grade its own papers, and OLC is the inside place the administration goes to get legal support for its spying program.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I was given access to those opinions, and spent hours poring over them. Sitting in that secure room, as a lawyer, as a former U.S. Attorney, legal counsel to Rhode Island’s Governor, and State Attorney General, I was increasingly dismayed and amazed as I read on.

To give you an example of what I read, I have gotten three legal propositions from these OLC opinions declassified. Here they are, as accurately as my note taking could reproduce them from the classified documents. Listen for yourself. I will read all three, and then discuss each one.

  1. An executive order cannot limit a President. There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order. Rather than violate an executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it.
  2. The President, exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, can determine whether an action is a lawful exercise of the President’s authority under Article II.
  3. The Department of Justice is bound by the President’s legal determinations. [my emphasis]

I noticed Whitehouse sniffing around the question of Executive Orders before. I thought (okay, hoped, really) that he was sniffing around 13292, which governs classification and declassification, including whether the Vice President can unilaterally declassify the identity of a CIA NOC. But it turns out he was sniffing around EO 12333, which governs Intelligence Activities (and though it’s not central to this discussion, here’s an amendment Bush made in 2004 to set up DNI).

Here’s what–according to Whitehouse, who after all ought to know–Bush believes about whether or not he has to follow EO 12333, an Executive Order signed by Saint Reagan. Read more