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9th Circuit: No Way to Punish the Government If They Illegally Collect (But Don’t Use) Your Telecommunications

As Josh Gerstein just reported, the 9th Circuit has thrown out a decision against the government in the al-Haramain wiretapping suit. While they don’t comment on Judge Vaughn Walker’s judgement that al-Haramain had standing and had proven they had been spied on, the panel ultimately held that for the alleged actions–collecting al-Haramain’s telecommunications–the government has sovereign immunity. Al-Haramain can only sue individuals, not the government.

The ruling sucks for al-Haramain. But it has larger implications. Effectively, the 9th Circuit is saying there’s no way to hold the government accountable for simply collecting your telecommunications illegally; you can only hold them accountable if they use that information in a trial.

It distinguishes those two activities this way, pointing to language that specifically invokes the United States as a defendant in case of 1806 (use in an official proceeding) but not 1810 (collection).

Contrasting § 1810 liability, for which sovereign immunity is not explicitly waived, with § 1806 liability, for which it is, also illuminates congressional purpose. Liability under the two sections, while similar in its reach, is not identical. Section 1806, combined with 18 U.S.C. § 2712, renders the United States liable only for the “use[ ] and disclos[ure]” of information “by Federal officers and employees” in an unlawful manner. Section 1810, by contrast, also creates liability for the actual collection of the information in the first place, targeting “electronic surveillance or . . . disclos[ure] or use[ ]” of that information. (emphasis added). Under this scheme, Al-Haramain can bring a suit for damages against the United States for use of the collected information, but cannot bring suit against the government for collection of the information itself. Cf. ACLU v. NSA, 493 F.3d 644, 671 (6th Cir. 2007) (Lead Opinion of Batchelder, J.) (noting that FISA potentially allows limitless information collection upon issuance of warrant, but limits use and dissemination of information under, inter alia, § 1806(a)). Although such a structure may seem anomalous and even unfair, the policy judgment is one for Congress, not the courts. Also, because governmental liability remains under § 1806, the district court’s concern that FISA relief would become a dead letter is not valid. See In re Nat’l Sec. Agency Telecomms. Records Litig., 564 F. Supp. 2d at 1125.

[snip]

Congress can and did waive sovereign immunity with respect to violations for which it wished to render the United States liable. It deliberately did not waive immunity with respect to § 1810, and the district court erred by imputing an implied waiver. Al Haramain’s suit for damages against the United States may not proceed under § 1810.

Because al-Haramain, at a time when Vaughn Walker was using 1810 to get by the government’s State Secrets invocation, said “it was not proceeding under other sections of FISA,” its existing claim is limited to 1810. The government used the information collected–in a secret process that ended up declaring al-Haramain a terrorist supporter–but not in a trial, and therefore not in a way al-Haramain can easily hold the government liable for.

The implication, of course, is that all the rest of the collection the government engages in–of all of us, not just al-Haramain–also escapes all accountability. So long as the government never uses the information itself–even if the entire rest of their case is based on illegally collected information (as it was in, at a minimum, al-Haramain’s terrorist designation)–a person cannot hold the government itself responsible.

The people who can be held accountable? The non-governmental or non law enforcement persons who conduct the surveillance.

But of course, they–the telecoms–have already been granted immunity.

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.

SCOTUS Cert Grant In Clapper Takes Key 9th Circuit Cases Hostage

Marcy noted briefly Monday morning, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Clapper v. Amnesty International:

SCOTUS did, however, grant cert to Clapper v. Amnesty, which I wrote about here and here. On its face, Clapper is just about the FISA Amendments Act. But it also has implications for wiretap exceptions–and, I’ve argued–data mining exceptions to the Fourth Amendment. In any case, SCOTUS seems interested in reversing the 2nd Circuit opinion, which had granted standing to people whose work had been chilled by the passage of the FAA. Also, as I hope to note further today, SCOTUS’ Clapper decision may also impact the Hedges v. Obama ruling from last week.

As Marcy indicated, there is nothing good afoot from SCOTUS taking cert in Clapper; if they wanted to leave the very nice decision of the 2nd Circuit intact, they simply leave it intact and don’t grant review. Oh, and, yes, Marcy is quite right, it’s a very safe bet that Clapper will “impact” the also very nice recent decision in Hedges, which is, itself, headed with a bullet to the 2nd Circuit.

There was, of course, much discussion of the significance of the Clapper cert grant yesterday on Twitter; one of the best of which was between Marcy, Lawfare’s Steve Vladeck and, to a lesser extent, me. To make a long story a little shorter, I said (here and here):

See, and I HATE saying this, I think Kennedy will do just that+then same 5 will kill al-Haramain once it gets to SCOTUS and then they will have capped the Bush wiretapping well completely and closed off standing significantly for the future.

Yikes, I did not contemplate just how true this statement was; the Clapper cert grant has already had a far deeper and more pernicious effect than even I suspected. This morning, in a move I do not believe anybody else has caught on to yet, the 9th Circuit quietly removed both al-Haramain and the CCR case encaptioned In Re: NSA Telecommunications Litigation/CCR v. Obama from the oral argument calendar that has long been set for June 1 in the old 9th Circuit Pasadena courthouse. The orders for both al-Haramain and CCR are identical, here is the language from the al-Haramain one:

Argument in this case scheduled for June 1, 2012 in Pasadena, California, is vacated pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l, No. 11- 1025. The court may order supplemental briefing following the Supreme Court’s decision. Oral argument will be rescheduled.

Whoa. This is extremely significant, and extremely unfortunate. Also fairly inexplicable. Entering the order for CCR makes some sense, since it involves the same “fear of surveillance” standing issue as is at issue in Clapper; but doing it for al-Haramain makes no sense whatsoever, because al-Haramain is an “actual” surveillance standing case.

There simply is no issue of the claimed, putative, standing concern that permeates Clapper and CCR. Well, not unless the 9th Circuit panel thinks the Supreme Court might speak more broadly, and expand the parameters wildly, in Clapper just as they did in Citizens United. That would be a pretty ugly path for the Supreme beings to follow; but, apparently, not just a cynical bet on my part, but also a bet the 9th Circuit immediately placed as well.

To be fair, even positive forward thinking players, like Steve Vladeck, thought the lower courts might be copacetic, or that the Supremes might comply. Maybe not so much. I know, shocking. Here is a glimpse, through Vladeck, of the situation:

But at a more fundamental level, there’s one more point worth making: Readers are likely familiar with Alex Bickel’s Passive Virtues, and his thesis that, especially on such sensitive questions where constitutional rights intersect with national security, courts might do best to rely on justiciability doctrines to duck the issue—and to thereby avoid passing upon the merits one way or the other. [Think Joshua at the end of WarGames: “The only winning move is not to play.”] And at first blush, this looks like the perfect case for Bickel’s thesis, given the implications in either direction on the merits: recognizing a foreign intelligence surveillance exception and thereby endorsing such sweeping, warrantless interceptions of previously protected communications vs. removing this particular club from the government’s bag…

And yet, the foreign intelligence surveillance exception only exists because it has already been recognized by a circuit-level federal court, to wit, the FISA Court of Review. Whether the passive virtues might otherwise justify judicial sidestepping in such a contentious case, the fact of the matter is that this is a problem largely (albeit not entirely, thanks to the FISA Amendments Act) of the courts‘ making. To duck at this stage would be to let the FISA Court of Review—the judges of which are selected by the Chief Justice—have the last word on such a momentous question of constitutional law. In my view, at least, that would be unfortunate, and it’s certainly not what Bickel meant…

Back to al-Haramain and the effects in the 9th Circuit. Here is the latest, taken from the Motion for Reconsideration filed late yesterday by al-Haramain, Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor:

The question presented in Clapper is thus wholly unrelated to the issues presented on the defendants’ appeal in the present case. The Supreme Court’s decision in Clapper will have no effect on the disposition of the present case. Thus, there is no reason to delay the adjudication of this appeal pending the decision in Clapper, which would only add another year or more to the six-plus years that this case has been in litigation.

It makes sense for the Court to have vacated the oral argument date for Center for Constitutional Rights v. Obama, No. 11-15956, which involves theories of Article III standing similar to those in Clapper. It does not, however, make sense in the present case, where Article III standing is based on proof of actual past surveillance rather than the fear of future surveillance and expenditures to protect communications asserted in Clapper.

Yes, that is exactly correct.

And, therein, resides the problem with Vladeck’s interpretation of what is going on with the Clapper case. Steve undersold, severely, just how problematic Clapper is. Both the discussion herein, and the knee jerk action of the 9th Circuit, the alleged liberal scourge of Democratic Federal Appellate Courts, demonstrate how critical this all is and why Clapper is so important.

Clapper has not only consumed its own oxygen, it has consumed that of independent, and important, nee critical, elements of the only reductive cases there are left in the United States judicial system in regards to these ends. That would be, at an irreducible minimum, al-Haramain in the 9th Circuit.

If you have forgotten about al-Haramain, and the proceedings that took place in the inestimable Vaughn Walker’s, court, here it is. Of all the attempts to attack the Bush/Cheney wiretapping crimes, al-Haramain is the only court case that, due to its unique circumstances, has been successful. It alone stands for the proposition that mass crimes were, in fact, committed. al-Haramain had a tough enough road ahead of it on its own, the road has become all the more treacherous now because of Clapper.

The 9th Circuit should grant the motion for reconsideration and reinstate al-Haramain on the oral argument calendar, but that is quite likely a longshot at this point. Expect the DOJ to file a very aggressive response, they are undoubtedly jumping for joy at this stroke of good fortune and will strive to protect it.

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.

Anwar al-Awlaki Assassination: Double Secret Illegitimacy

Frances Fragos Townsend is distraught that the media are not using the government’s euphemism for the Anwar al-Awlaki assassination.

Awalaki op was NOT assassination; nor a targeted killing; nor a hit job as media keeps describing! Was a legal capture or kill of AQ enemy.

My favorite bit is how that “captureorkill” rolls right into her tweet, a false foundation stone for the shaky logic that there’s a legal distinction between an operation in which there was never any consideration of capture, and an assassination.

But her panic that the media is not using the preferred semantics to describe the Awlaki assassination reflects a seemingly growing concern among all those who have participated in or signed off on this assassination about its perceived legitimacy.

In addition to Townsend, you’ve got DiFi and Saxby Chambliss releasing a joint statement invoking the magic words, “imminent threat,” “recruiting radicals,” and even leaking the state secret that Yemen cooperated with us on it. You’ve got Mike Rogers asserting Awlaki, “actively planned and sought ways to kill Americans.” All of these people who have been briefed and presumably (as members of the Gang of Four) personally signed off on the assassination, citing details that might support the legality of the killing.

In his effort to claim the assassination was just, Jack Goldsmith gets at part of the problem. He makes the expected arguments about what a careful process the Obama Administration uses before approving an assassination:

  • Citing Judge John Bates’ punt to the political branches on the issue, all the while claiming what Bates referred to as an “assassination” is not one
  • Arguing that killing people outside of an area against which we’ve declared war is legal “because the other country consents to them or is unable or unwilling to check the terrorist threat, thereby bringing America’s right to self-defense into play”
  • Asserting that Administration strikes “distinguish civilians from attack and use only proportionate force”

But, as Goldsmith admits,

Such caution, however, does not guarantee legitimacy at home or abroad.

And while his argument self-destructs precisely where he invokes the Administration’s claims over any real proof, Goldsmith at least implicitly admits the reason why having Townsend and Chambliss and DiFi and Rogers and himself assuring us this attack was legal is not enough to make it legitimate: secrecy.

[T]he Obama administration has gone to unusual lengths, consistent with the need to protect intelligence, to explain the basis for and limits on its actions.

[snip]

It can perhaps release a bit more information about the basis for its targeted strikes. It is doubtful, however, that more transparency or more elaborate legal arguments will change many minds, since the goal of drone critics is to end their use altogether (outside of Afghanistan). [my emphasis]

As Goldsmith’s own rationalization for the legality of this attack makes clear, the attack is only legal if Yemen consents OR is unable OR unwilling (leaving aside the question of imminence, which at least DiFi and Chambliss were honest enough to mention). So too must the attack distinguish between a civilian–perhaps someone engaging in First Amendment protected speech, however loathsome–and someone who is truly operational.

And while the government may well have been able to prove all those things with Awlaki (though probably not the imminence bit Goldsmith ignores), it chose not to.

It had the opportunity to do so, and chose not to avail itself of that opportunity.

The Administration very specifically and deliberately told a court that precisely the things needed to prove the operation was legal–whether Yemen was cooperating and precisely what Awlaki had done to amount to operational activity, not to mention what the CIA’s role in this assassination was–were state secrets. Particularly given the growing number of times (with Reynolds, Arar, Horn, al-Haramain, and Jeppesen) when the government has demonstrably invoked state secrets to hide illegal activity, the fact that the government has claimed precisely these critical details to be secret in this case only make its claims the killing was legal that much more dubious.

Critical thinkers must assume, given the government’s use of state secrets in recent years, that it invoked state secrets precisely because its legal case was suspect, at best.

Aside from John Brennan spreading state secrets, the Administration has tried to sustain the fiction that these details are secret in on the record statements, resulting in this kind of buffoonery.

Jake Tapper:    You said that Awlaki was demonstrably and provably involved in operations.  Do you plan on demonstrating —

MR. CARNEY:  I should step back.  He is clearly — I mean “provably” may be a legal term.  Read more

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.

Ten Years after 9/11, Inherent Authority Dies a Small Legal Death

Al-Haramain has submitted its brief for the appellate review on a number of issues related to the government’s illegal wiretapping of the charity. The questions at issue are:

1. Does FISA waive federal sovereign immunity?
2. Does FISA preempt the state secrets privilege?
3. Was plaintiffs’ non-classified evidence sufficient to prove their warrantless electronic surveillance?
4. Did the district court properly award counsel’s full attorney’s fees?
5. Did the district court err in dismissing defendant Mueller in his individual capacity?

Most of the brief will be familiar to those who have followed this case. But this passage–because it comes at the appellate level–is new.

Finally, we note that defendants do not challenge the district court’s ruling that the President lacks inherent power to disregard FISA’s preemption of the state secrets privilege. See 564 F. Supp. 2d at 1121 [ER 108]; supra at 16. Thus, for purposes of this appeal, defendants have forfeited any claim of inherent power to disregard FISA. See, e.g., Independent Towers of Wash. v. Washington, 350 F.3d 925, 929 (9th Cir. 2003). More broadly, defendants have abandoned any defense of the TSP’s purported theoretical underpinning that the President may disregard an Act of Congress in the name of national security.

This forfeiture should come as no surprise. Top officials in the Obama administration had conspicuously repudiated the inherent power theory before taking office. See Donald Verrilli (now Solicitor General) et al., Brief for Amici Curiae Center for National Security Studies and the Constitution Project, American Civil Liberties Union v. National Security Agency, 493 F.3d 644 (6th Cir. 2007), 2006 WL 4055623, at *2 & *15 (inherent power theory is “particularly dangerous because it comes at the expense of both Congress’s and the judiciary’s powers to defend the individual liberties of Americans”); Neal Kumar Katyal (now Principal Deputy Solicitor General), Hamdan v. Rumsfeld: The Legal Academy Goes to Practice, 120 HARV. L. REV. 65, 117 (2006) (“overblown assertions” of inherent power “risk lawlessness in the name of national security”); Eric Holder (now Attorney General), Address to American Const. Society (June 13, 2008), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CKycFGJOUs&feature=relmfu (videotape at 3:41–3:52) (“We must utilize and enhance our intelligence collection capabilities to identify and root out terrorists, but we must also comply with the law. We must also comply with FISA.”). [my emphasis]

The passage is not central to the argument except insofar as it notes the government has procedurally given up the theory that they used to initially rationalize the illegal wiretap program. It is, as I said, just a small legal death, limited to this one case, rather than a wholesale repudiation.

Nevertheless, I thought the timing–not just coinciding with the anniversary of 9/11 but also the release of Dick Cheney’s autobiographical novel–rather apt.

And the rhetorical value in citing three of DOJ’s top lawyers dismissing the theory–which the brief repeats by citing Holder’s even more damning call for “a reckoning” in that same ACS speech at the very start of the brief does have value.

“[S]teps taken in the aftermath of 9/11 were both excessive and unlawful. Our government . . . approved secret electronic surveillance of American citizens . . . . These steps were wrong when they were initiated and they are wrong today. We owe the American people a reckoning.” Eric Holder, June 13, 2008

Verilli’s and Katyal’s and Holder’s criticism of inherent power may have just been the rhetorical blatherings of political lawyers then in the political and legal opposition, blatherings not entirely consistent with steps they have taken since they’ve been in positions of authority.

But for the purposes of this legal brief, who better to kill the theory of inherent authority than the Attorney General?

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.

DOJ: Calling Out Government Lies Would Endanger National Security

The government argues that, in spite of the fact that Saifullah Paracha’s Gitmo Detainee Assessment Brief was leaked in April, his lawyer, David Remes, cannot talk about it. Because if he did, we might conclude the DAB was real.

Granting Petitioner’s request could also be detrimental to the interests of national security, given the access to classified information that petitioners’ counsel enjoy but that members of the public at large do not. Reliance on the purported detainee assessments leaked to WikiLeaks in unclassified public writings by habeas counsel known to have access to classified information could be taken as implicit authentication of the reports and the information contained therein.

Of course, no one really doubts that it is real. But the government will claim that this public information remains classified to make sure Remes can’t mention the information. Remes can only represent his client, I guess, in court, not in the public sphere.

The problem, of course, is that the file contains obvious problems–if not out and out lies, then at least one gross misrepresentation, to wit: the government claims that Aafia Siddiqui “was detained in Afghanistan in mid-July 2008” (see Detainee assessment (the Scribd like embed at the link), page 5).

There are certainly other areas Remes would be interested in discussing and having the freedom to argue to the public on behalf of his client, because that is not only what defense lawyers are supposed to do, but are ethically required to do, in order to provide a zealous representation for their client.

The real extent of the conundrum this places Remes, and similarly situated Gitmo counsel, in is demonstrated by this from the Blog of Legal Times at the National Law Journal:

Remes, the department said, cannot have unrestricted use of the documents that the government refuses to confirm or deny are authentic assessments of detainees. DOJ’s submission (PDF) expands on the scope of the guidance the department issued this month to lawyers in Guantanamo habeas cases.

In court papers, the DOJ theme is clear: the Justice Department over and over refused to confirm or deny that any individual WikiLeaks document is an official government record.

“Unfettered public use, dissemination, or discussion of these documents by cleared counsel could be interpreted as confirmation (or denial) of the documents’ contents by an individual in a position of knowledge, with corresponding harm to national security,” DOJ Civil Division attorney Kristina Wolfe said in court papers.

The government, Wolfe said, cannot acknowledge the authenticity of one document and then refuse to substantiate another document. The “very act of refusal would in effect reveal the information the government seeks to protect—the authenticity of the purportedly classified document,” Wolfe said.

This is beyond absurd, the DOJ is refusing to admit or deny, and is wantonly limiting the ability of lawyers to use, something the entire world is in on. They are treating the information like it is secret material under a Read more

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.

Illegal Wiretap Leak Probe Dropped

According to Josh Gerstein, DOJ decided not to charge anyone in the illegal wiretap leak probe.

The Justice Department has dropped its long-running criminal investigation of a lawyer who publicly admitted leaking information about President George W. Bush’s top-secret warrantless wiretapping program to The New York Times – disclosures that Bush vehemently denounced as a breach of national security.

[snip]

The Justice Department would not discuss the current status of the probe, which began in late 2005 after the Times story was published with a formal leak complaint from the National Security Agency. However, [Thomas] Tamm’s attorney, Paul Kemp, told POLITICO he and his client were informed “seven or eight months ago” that the investigation into Tamm was over.

The information was relayed during a meeting with the prosecutor handling the case, William Welch, Kemp said. The Justice Department recently issued Tamm a letter confirming that the probe had concluded, the defense attorney said.

Prosecutors also appear to have lost interest in a former National Security Agency official who also publicly acknowledged being a source for the Times on the warrantless wiretapping story, Russell Tice. An attorney for Tice, Joshua Dratel, said it has been several years since prosecutors contacted him about the investigation.

Gerstein discusses the possibility that the investigation was dropped because it was found to be illegal.

“What leaps out to me is the fact that the program was arguably illegal, so while that does not provide a legal defense or immunity to the leaker, from a practical jury-appeal standpoint, which a seasoned prosecutor should consider, how appealing is the case going to be if they’re prosecuting government attorneys for disclosing the program but … the people who were doing the wiretapping don’t get prosecuted?” asked [Peter] Zeidenberg, who was a prosecutor on the leak-related case against Bush White House aide Lewis Libby. “How would you like to be the prosecutor to get up there and make that argument?”

Note, Vaughn Walker’s decision against the government in the al-Haramain case was just over a year ago, so it may be that his decision provided a big disincentive to the government to pursue the case.

Of course, that raises the possibility that the same might be true for Bradley Manning. Granted, his case will not be judged by a jury of civilians; he will have a military jury. Still, as more and more documents he allegedly leak reveal our government’s knowing cover-up that it was detaining innocent people and abetting Iraqi torture, it may make it a lot less palatable to argue against Manning.

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.

With David Kris Gone, DOJ Tries to Vacate Vaughn Walker’s FISA Opinion

There’s an interesting tidbit in the government’s mediation questionnaire in anticipation of their appeal of Vaughn Walker’s decision that al-Haramain had been illegally wiretapped and was entitled to damages.

The government is willing to negotiate.

In response to the direction, “Provide any other information that might affect the suitability of this case for mediation,” the government wrote:

This matter touches upon fundamental legal issues that may be difficult if not impossible to compromise. It is also not clear that any viable settlement could take place absent vacatur of the district court’s legal rulings. The government is unwilling to state, however, that it would refuse to participate in mediation.

Granted, they didn’t say, “Let’s make a deal.” But compared to the imperious language the government has been using throughout this case (directed not just at the al-Haramain team, but even at Judge Walker himself), the statement that “the government is unwilling to state … that it would refuse to participate in mediation,” is like a romantic love letter. (Compare it, too, to what Imperial County said regarding mediation of Judge Walker’s equally momentous ruling in the Prop 8 case: “Due to the nature and complexity of this case, mediation will not be beneficial;” the Prop 8 defendant-intervenor team itself didn’t even answer the question!)

So on what terms is the government willing to negotiate?

It is also not clear that any viable settlement could take place absent vacatur of the district court’s legal rulings.

They’re suggesting they might just maybe be willing to maybe get into bed with al-Haramain if they’d be willing to vacate Judge Walker’s rulings.

What’s so horrible in Walker’s rulings that the government might entertain “letting the terrorists win” in exchange for vacating the rulings? It seems there are three possible parts of Walker’s July 2008 ruling the government might want vacated. (And remember, this is all premised on my supposition that the government’s coy openness to mediation suggests they are focused on vacating Walker’s ruling, which is really just a WAG.)

FISA trumps State Secrets; Congress can limit Article II secrecy

First, Walker ruled that FISA trumps state secrets.

Plaintiffs argue that the in camera procedure described in FISA’s section 1806(f) applies to preempt the protocol described in Reynolds in this case. Doc # 435/20 at 11-14. The court agrees.

[snip]

Given the possibility that the executive branch might again engage in warrantless surveillance and then assert national security secrecy in order to mask its conduct, Congress intended for the executive branch to relinquish its near total control over whether the fact of unlawful surveillance could be protected as a secret.

Walker relied on the legislative history and another case in which congressional action pre-empted common law, Milwaukee v. Illinois, to side with al-Haramain. More interesting, perhaps, is the way Walker addressed the government’s claim that USA v. Nixon and Navy v. Egan held that Article II gave the President unlimited authority over classified information. I’m particularly interested in Walker’s comments on Navy v. Egan (because both the Bush and Obama Administrations routinely rely on Navy v. Egan to claim unlimited control over classification, and it’s one part of his ruling they repeatedly ignored) are Walker’s comments on that case.

Egan recognized the president’s constitutional power to “control access to information bearing on national security,” stating that this power “falls on the President as head of the Executive Branch and as Commander in Chief” and “exists quite apart from any explicit congressional grant.” Id at 527. But Egan also discussed the other side of the coin, stating that “unless Congress specifically has provided otherwise, courts traditionally have been reluctant to intrude upon the authority of the Executive in military and national security affairs.” Id at 530 (emphasis added). Egan recognizes that the authority to protect national security information is neither exclusive nor absolute in the executive branch. When Congress acts to contravene the president’s authority, federal courts must give effect to what Congress has required.

Note, Walker also includes several references endorsing Congress’ claim that the government can’t withhold information about illegal intelligence activities, which probably gives the Administration gas all by itself.

In other words, one aspect of Walker’s ruling the government might want to see vacated is the ways in which he shows Congress has the authority to enact laws to limit the President’s unlimited control over secrecy.

FISA is the exclusive means to conduct electronic surveillance

This is a big one, as readily apparent from the verbal gymnastics the government engaged in during the FISA Amendments Act debate. Repeatedly, they tried to avoid letting DiFi introduce language to the effect of, “no, we meant it the first time, exclusive means means exclusive means.”

In his July 2008 ruling, Walker said,

Congress appears clearly to have intended to——and did——establish the exclusive means for foreign intelligence surveillance activities to be conducted. Whatever power the executive may otherwise have had in this regard, FISA limits the power of the executive branch to conduct such activities and it limits the executive branch’s authority to assert the state secrets privilege in response to challenges to the legality of its foreign intelligence surveillance activities.

To understand why the government might want this vacated, you have to go no further than the government’s stall tactics with regards to the White Paper that purportedly made the warrantless wiretap program retroactively legal in 2006. Read more

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.

Vaughn Walker Issues Final al-Haramain Opinion on Damages and Attorney Fees

As you may recall, Chief Judge Vaughn Walker of the Northern District of California (NDCA), who has handled two of the most critical and transcendent litigations of the last decade, Perry v. Schwarzenegger and al-Haramain v. Bush/Obama, is retiring. Today, he has issued his last big opinion left on his table pre-retirement, the ruling on damages to be awarded Plaintiff in al-Haramain, assignment of attorney fees to Plaintiffs, and whether or not to impose punitive damages against the government for their offending illegal conduct.

The government, in its brief objecting to the Plaintiffs’ proposed form of judgment, basically poked the court in the eye with a stick by continuing their obstreperous refusal to accept the court’s jurisdiction over their assertion of state secrets, continued to argue there were no facts competently of record despite Walker’s crystal clear determinations to the contrary, and denied that Plaintiffs were entitled to attorney fees or punitive damages. They just say NO. The Plaintiffs went on to properly lodge their calculation of damages, detailed request for attorney fees and affidavit in support thereof. Plaintiffs al-Haramain, separately, filed a very compelling brief on why the court should award them punitive damages against the government. The government, of course, objected some more.

As lead Plaintiffs counsel Jon Eisenberg stated in the punitive damages brief:

Defendants abused the extraordinary power of the Executive Branch by committing unlawful electronic surveillance of the plaintiffs with full knowledge of, and in flagrant disregard for, determinations by top officials in the Department of Justice (DOJ) that the surveillance lacked constitutional or other legal support. Defendants sought to put themselves above the law, in the manner of a monarch. That is a profound abuse of America’s trust. It calls for strong medicine.

And thus it all comes down to today’s decision by Judge Walker, and here is the full text of his 47 page order.

In short, Walker has ordered that Plaintiffs Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor (a-Haramain’s attorneys wrongfully surveilled) receive $20,400.00 each in liquidated damages. Walker denied damages to al-Haramain itself. In regards to punitive damages, Judge Walker has denied in full Plaintiffs’ request. As to attorney fees, the court grants the motion as to Plaintiffs Ghafoor and Belew only (again, not as to al-Haramain itself, and awards attorney fees and expenses in the amount of $2,537,399.45.

There is a lot to chew on in this order, and both Marcy and I will be coming back to do just that after chewing and digesting it further. But so far, it is clear that the court sided completely with the plaintiffs on compensatory/liquidated damages, giving Belew and Ghafoor every penny they asked for and finding the government’s opposition meritless. This passage by the court is telling: Read more

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.

Torture? Check. Covering Up Torture? Check. Rule of Law? Nope.

I think it was the timing of the end of the torture investigation that hurts most of all. Just days ago, Harold Koh was boasting of the Durham investigation to the UN. Then Bush started his dog and pony show, including his proud admission to have ordered up torture. All of which made today’s announcement, that no one will be charged for covering up evidence of torture, almost anti-climactic.

Of course no one will be charged for destroying the evidence of torture! Our country has spun so far beyond holding the criminals who run our country accountable that even the notion of accountability for torture was becoming quaint and musty while we waited and screamed for some kind of acknowledgment that Durham had let the statute of limitations on the torture tape destruction expire. I doubt they would have even marked the moment–yet another criminal investigation of the Bush Administration ending in nothing–it if weren’t for the big stink bmaz has been making. Well, maybe that’s not right–after all, Bob Bennett was bound to do a very public victory lap, because that’s what he’s paid for.

The investigation continues, DOJ tells us, into obstruction of the Durham investigation itself. Maybe they think they’ve caught someone like Porter Goss in a lie. But at this point, that almost seems like a nice story the prosecutors are telling themselves so they can believe they’re still prosecutors, so they can believe we still have rule of law in this country.

This inquiry started long before Obama started looking forward, not backward. It started before the White House allowed the Chief of Staff to override the Attorney General on Gitmo and torture. It started before we found out that someone had destroyed many of the torture documents at DOJ–only to find no one at DOJ cared. It started before the Obama DOJ made up silly reasons why Americans couldn’t see what the Vice President had to say about ordering the leak of a CIA officer’s identity. It started before the Obama White House kept invoking State Secrets to cover up Bush’s crimes, from illegal wiretapping, to kidnapping, to torture. It started at a time when we naively believed that Change might include putting the legal abuses of the past behind us.

This inquiry started before the Obama Administration assumed the right to kill American citizens with no due process–all the while invoking State Secrets to hide that, too.

This inquiry started before Bush and then Obama let BP get away with serial violations of the laws that protect our workers and environment, and then acted surprised when BP ruined our Gulf.

This inquiry started before Obama helped to cover up the massive fraud committed by our banks, even while it continued to find ways to print money for those same banks. It started, too, before the Obama Administration ignored mounting evidence that banks–the banks employed by taxpayer owned Fannie and Freddie–were foreclosing on homes they didn’t have the legal right to foreclose on, going so far as to counterfeit documents to justify it. This inquiry started when we still believed in the old-fashioned principle of property rights.

This inquiry started before banksters got excused when they mowed down cyclists and left the scene of the crime, because a felony would mean the bankster would lose his job.

The ACLU’s Anthony Romero reacted to this news saying, in part, “We cannot say that we live under the rule of law unless we are clear that no one is above the law.”

I think it’s clear. We cannot say we live under the rule of law.

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 Vaughn Walker Moves On, There Are No Replacements

As you have probably heard by now, Vaughn Walker, the Chief Judge for the Northern District of California, has announced his retirement:

The United States District Court for the Northern District of California announces today that Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker will step down as chief judge effective December 31, 2010. Also, Chief Judge Walker notified President Obama by letter today that he will leave the court in February 2011.

Chief Judge Walker has been a United States District Judge since February 5, 1990 and has served as chief judge of the court since September 1, 2004. Before becoming a federal judge, Chief Judge Walker was a litigation partner at the firm now known as Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. Upon leaving the federal bench, Chief Judge Walker plans to return to the private sector.

In his letter to the President, Chief Judge Walker said: ““Concluding twenty one years of judicial service, I leave the bench with the highest respect and regard for the federal judiciary, its judges and their staff and the essential role they fulfill in our constitutional system.””

By statute, United States district chief judges are selected based on a combination of age, seniority and experience and may serve in the post for a maximum of seven years. 28 USC § 136. By application of this statute, District Judge James Ware will assume the post of chief judge of the Northern District on January 1, 2011.

That was the formal announcement I received from Walker’s chambers. For further reportage, see the always outstanding Bay area legal reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bob Egelko. (I will take issue with one thing Egelko reported though, that Walker’s announcement was “unexpected”; I have heard rumors of him retiring at the end of the year for several months now.)

I started to write this post last night with a million thoughts swirling in my head on the plethora of important cases Walker has handled over the years and erudite opinions rendered thereon. There is far more to the man’s record than al-Haramain and Perry v. Schwarzenegger; he also sat on such blockbuster cases as the Hearst/ SF Chronicle Antitrust litigation, the Apple/Microsoft intellectual property battle, and the knock down drag out Oracle/Peoplesoft takeover war. And hundreds of others over the years that, from every opinion of his I have read over the last couple of decades, he treated with pretty much the same dedication and attention to detail as you see in the landmark cases you know him from now. Vaughn Walker was both driven and meticulous, they simply do not make many like that; even in the cream of the crop hallowed halls of the Federal judiciary, Vaughn Walker stands out and above.

But that part of Vaughn Walker’s career is winding down now, and in a little more than three months he will be out the door of his chambers at the Philip E. Burton Federal Courthouse for the last time. Many, if not most, Federal judges who retire after they are at least 65 years of age and have 15 or more years on the bench, go on “senior status” where they continue to receive full salary, but work only part time as needed and as they wish. Walker is not taking senior status though, instead Read more

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.