Oops! They Pissed Off Judge Walker Before He Finalizes Immunity

I just finished reading Vaughn Walker’s opinion explaining that the government will have to give him the document that–the lawyers for al Haramain claim–shows they were wiretapped without a warrant under Bush’s illegal wiretap program, so he can determine whether it really does show what the lawyers claim it shows. If it does, you see, then someone will finally be able to sue Bush and his cronies for violating FISA.

If you don’t have time to read the entire opinion, I recommend you pick it up around page 16–where Walker includes a short summary of how the al Haramain lawyers proved they were surveilled under the illegal program–and then go to page 21–where Walker starts getting really cranky with the government. 

Defendants simply continue to insist that § 1806(f) discovery may not be used to litigate the issue of standing; rather, they argue, plaintiffs have failed to establish their “Article III standing” and their case must now be dismissed. But defendants’ contention that plaintiffs must prove more than they have in order to avail themselves of section 1806(f) conflicts with the express primary purpose of in camera review under § 1806(f): “to determine whether the surveillance of the aggrieved person was lawfully authorized and conducted.” § 1806(f).

In reply, plaintiffs call attention to the circular nature of the government’s position on their motion:

Do defendants mean to assert their theory of unfettered presidential power over matters of national security —— the very theory plaintiffs seek to challenge in this case —— as a basis for disregarding this court’s FISA preemption ruling and defying the current access proceedings under section 1806(f)? So it seems.

So it seems to the court also.

It appears from defendants’ response to plaintiffs’ motion that defendants believe they can prevent the court from taking any action under 1806(f) by simply declining to act.

But the statute is more logically susceptible to another, plainer reading: the occurrence of the action by the Attorney General described in the clause beginning with “if” makes mandatory on the district court (as signaled by the verb “shall”) the in camera/ex parte review provided for in the rest of the sentence. The non-occurrence of the Attorney General’s action does not necessarily stop the process in its tracks as defendants seem to contend. Read more

The al-Haramain Decision

Due to some doozy global warming storms last night, we had intermittent power, so I’m just now getting to the Vaughn Walker decision in the al Haramain case, in which he dismisses the suit but invites the plaintiffs to submit unclassified evidence in support of their case. So there’s already a range of smart commentary on the decision. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that Walkers ruling bodes well for their own case–which relies on the AT&T documents liberated by Mark Klein, and not classified evidence. Wired’s David Kravets notes that, coming as it does two business days before Congress will grant the telecoms immunity, the ruling has little meaning for EFF. McJoan basically makes the same argument–Congress is in the process of taking an unwieldy bad law and making it worse.

With regards the events of the next week, I sort of agree that this ruling will have little effect. There’s nothing in Walker’s ruling that will, by itself, persuade Barack Obama to take a stand on this legislation (he’s due to make an announcement about his stance on the legislation, but I don’t think this will change it one way or another). And I agree with Kravets–once Congress does pass its immunity, this ruling will be meaningless for those suing the telecoms (though perhaps it’ll make the likely suits that the immunity itself is illegal more interesting).

State Secrets Is Not Absolute

But the decision is interesting for two other reasons. First, Walker makes a strong case that the government’s ability to invoke state secrets is not absolute. Walker cites one of David Addington’s favorite cases, Navy v. Egan, to show that even that case envisions the possibility of Congress placing limits on the President’s ability to control national security information.

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. Egan’s formulation is, therefore, a specific application of Justice Jackson’s more general statement in Youngstown Sheet & Tube. [my emphasis]

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How Is Rick Renzi Like a Gitmo Detainee?

A tiny bit of me (okay, miniscule) wishes that Rick Renzi were sticking around as a Congressman. That’s because, now that the government has tried to use wiretaps of conversations between him and his attorneys in his trial, Renzi might be motivated to champion legislation reaffirming the importance of attorney-client privilege.

Attorneys for Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), who has been indicted on 35 federal corruption charges, filed a motion today asking a federal judge to exclude from trial a series of "at least 50" cell phone calls by Renzi that were recorded by FBI agents.

Renzi’s legal teams says that the calls should be privileged under attorney-client privilege, as well as the Speech or Debate Clause, a constitutional privilege that protects lawmakers and aides from legal action for legislative activities. Renzi is not raising a Speech or Debate claim on these intercepted calls yet.

"These privileged calls include conversations between Congressman Renzi and his criminal defense counsel and an attorney representing him in a Federal Election Commission (‘FEC’) proceeding. The privileged calls reflect discussions regarding legal strategy and core work product, including the direction of the investigation, witness interviews, DOJ strategy, Congressman Renzi’s recollection of relevant issues, and legal advice regarding theories of prosecution and applicable defenses," Renzi’s lawyers wrote. They are asking that the audio files and transcripts of the calls should be returned to Renzi’s control and a protective order should be granted to prevent prosecutors or anyone else from reviewing the calls.

It’s a problem that extends beyond corrupt Congressmen. Many of the lawyers defending detainees at Gitmo believe they are being wiretapped.

One lawyer for Guantánamo detainees said he replaced his office telephone in Washington because of sounds that convinced him it had been bugged. Another lawyer who represents detainees said he sometimes had other lawyers call his corporate clients to foil any government eavesdroppers.

In interviews and a court filing Tuesday, lawyers for detainees at Guantánamo said they believed government agents had monitored their conversations. The assertions are the most specific to date by Guantánamo lawyers that officials may be violating legal principles that have generally kept government agents from eavesdropping on lawyers.

“I think they are listening to my telephone calls all the time,” said John A. Chandler, a prominent lawyer in Atlanta and Army veteran who represents six Guantánamo detainees.


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Article I v. State Secrets

Well, if nothing else, this al-Haramain case in CA looks like it’ll focus the issue of States Secrets just as the Senate attempts to curb it.

An Islamic charity group is challenging the Bush administration’s record use of the so-called state secrets privilege, dubbed a "killer bullet" to the group’s case over warrantless wiretapping.

Lawyers for the Oregon-based U.S. arm of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation on Wednesday urged a federal judge to toss out the government’s use of the privilege and let their lawsuit proceed.

The SF Chronicle captures the government argument in all its Kafkaesque glory.

A Bush administration lawyer resisted a San Francisco federal judge’s attempts Wednesday to get him to say whether Congress can limit the president’s wiretap authority in terrorism and espionage cases, calling the question simplistic.

"You can’t possibly make that judgment on the public record" without knowing the still-secret details of the electronic surveillance program that President Bush approved in 2001, Justice Department attorney Anthony Coppolino said at a crucial hearing in a wiretapping lawsuit.


But Walker, in an extensive exchange with Coppolino, said Congress had spoken clearly in a 1978 law that required the government to obtain a warrant from a secret court before it could conduct electronic surveillance of suspected foreign terrorists or spies.

"The president is obliged to follow what Congress has mandated," Walker said.

Coppolino replied that Congress has also authorized the president to protect the nation and its military secrets.


Walker pressed him on a more basic issue: whether Congress acted constitutionally when it required court approval for such wiretaps in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"I think it’s a bit of a simplistic question," Coppolino said.

"One might call it a fundamental question," the judge replied.

The government lawyer said that Congress "sought to intrude on the president’s authority to authorize surveillance" when it enacted the law, and that Bush, acting under his constitutional powers, had determined that its provisions were not sufficient to allow law enforcement authorities to thwart terrorists’ attack plans.

But Coppolino said the constitutionality of the law, and the related question of whether it is binding on the president, can’t be resolved without delving into operational details whose exposure would damage national security.

It looks like Coppolino’s argument will be worth reviewing in detail–to either laugh … or cry. Read more

SCOTUS Says “No Thanks” to ACLU Suit–Will It Change the FISA Debate?

SCOTUS just declined to review the 6th Circuit’s dismissal of the ACLU warrantless wiretapping suit.

 The Supreme Court rejected a challenge Tuesday to the Bush administration’s domestic spying program.

The justices’ decision, issued without comment, is the latest setback to legal efforts to force disclosure of details of the warrantless wiretapping that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The American Civil Liberties Union wanted the court to allow a lawsuit by the group and individuals over the wiretapping program. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs could not prove their communications had been monitored.

McJoan and Christy point to the key issue here–standing. As Glenn points out, judges have ruled that this warrantless wiretapping program was illegal, yet also ruled (at least the 6th Circuit) that no one had standing to do anything about it. 

It’s not clear whether the 9th Circuit will rule different on the majority of the 40 or so cases out there. But for now, this decision sure seems to put the immunity debate in a different light. After all, if judges won’t let any of these suits advance because no one can prove standing, then why bother with the constitutionally suspect step of having Congress intervene in the Courts?

The rub is the Al-Haramain lawsuit, where plaintiffs once had documented proof that the government had intercepted calls between one of the Charity’s members and its lawyers in the US. Only the government’s Kafkaesque games, which demand lawyers for the charity treat their own memory as classified, prevents the charity from proving standing.

Is Congress going to bigfoot into the privileges of another branch of government because one Islamic charity once had proof of the Bush Administration’s law-breaking? Or is it the threat of a differing opinion in the 9th Circuit the basis of the single-minded panic about immunity?