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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 has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Rendition Flight Lawsuit Gives Lie to Government’s Jeppesen State Secrets Claim

When they screw our tortured clients, they assert “National Security”, but when it is a matter of money, they don’t. — Reprieve’s Clive Smith

The British human rights organization Reprieve figured out that a NY state court case–a billing dispute between two aviation companies–pertained to rendition flights going back to 2002; it tipped off the press. The Guardian (which offers a separate story with links to some of the documents) lays out how the flight patterns tie to known renditions.

Gulfstream N85VM has already been identified as the aircraft that rendered Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar, after CIA agents kidnapped him in broad daylight in Milan in February 2003 and took him to Cairo. Through close examination of the invoices it is possible to identify other rendition flights in which a number of high-profile al-Qaida suspects may have been rendered.

In August 2003, for example, Richmor submitted an invoice for $301,113 for eight flights over three days that took the Gulfstream to Bangkok, via Alaska and Japan, on to Kabul via Sri Lanka, and then home again via Dubai and Shannon (pdf). This operation appears to have been the rendition of Encep Nuraman, the leader of the Indonesian terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah, better known as Hambali. He had been captured in Thailand shortly before the aircraft set off.

The court heard that in October 2004 the aircraft’s tail number was changed to N227SV after the US government discovered that its movements were being tracked. The following March the aircraft was publicly linked to the Abu Omar rendition. Phillip Morse, the aircraft’s ultimate owner, said he was stunned to discover how his plane was being used.

And it describes how the owners came to fear flying their own plane because it had been publicly linked to renditions.

By October 2006, Richards was writing to Moss to complain that his company was suffering negative publicity (pdf), losing business and receiving hate mail. The Gulfstream’s crews were afraid to leave the country. “In the future, whenever the name ‘Richmor’ is googled this will come up. N227SV will always be linked to renditions. No tail number change will ever erase that and our requests for government assistance in this matter have been ignored.”

The AP provides details on how the government provided bogus diplomatic notes

Every time the Gulfstream and other planes in Richmor’s fleet took to the air, they carried one-page transit documents on State Department letterhead. The notices, known as “letters of public convenience” were addressed “to whom it may concern,” stating that the jets should be treated as official flights and that “accompanying personnel are under contract with the U.S. government.”

In trial testimony, Moss said the documents were provided from the government to DynCorp, which furnished them to Richmor. Richards said the letters were given to flight crews before they left on each flight, but declined to explain their use.

The notes, signed by a State Department administrative assistant, Terry A. Hogan, described the planes’ travels as “global support for U.S. embassies worldwide.”

The AP could not locate Hogan. No official with that name is currently listed in State’s department-wide directory. A comprehensive 2004 State Department telephone directory contains no reference to Hogan, or variations of that name — despite records of four separate transit letters signed by Terry A. Hogan in January, March and April 2004. Several of the signatures on the diplomatic letters under Hogan’s name were noticeably different.

(Reprieve gave the story to the WaPo too, which did a thoroughly perfunctory job with it.)

All three stories note that the litigants expected the government to intervene–as they did in the Jeppesen suit–but did not.

Which, as Smith notes, sort of proves the lie behind the Jeppesen state secrets invocation. The government let all the details behind the KSM flights appear in unsealed court dockets. The only thing that separates what would have appeared in the Binyam Mohamed suit against Jeppesen and this suit is the explicit demand for compensation for a torture victim.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

SCOTUS: Govt Can Use State Secrets to Hide Crimes

SCOTUS just declined to take the Jeppesen Dataplan suit.

The high court rejected an appeal by five men who claimed that U.S. operatives—with support from Jeppesen Dataplan Inc., a Boeing unit—abducted them and sent them to other countries where they were tortured. They alleged Jeppesen provided critical flight planning and logistical support to the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program. The men were seeking unspecified monetary damages from the company.

This effectively means that men like Binyam Mohamed, who the Brits have admitted was tortured after being rendered, cannot sue for redress. And the ruling is particularly egregious since a Jeppesen executive admitted that his company was flying rendition flights.

In effect, SCOTUS’ decision not to take this case leaves in place state secrets precedent that allows the government to commit grave crimes, but hide behind state secrets.

Update: The Brennan Center and a bunch of other crazy hippies who believe in rule of law wrote a letter in response to SCOTUS’ decision to DOJ reminding them that, per their purported state secrets policy, credible allegations of wrong-doing must be referred to the Inspectors General of the relevant agencies for investigation.

In December of last year, the undersigned groups and individuals wrote to inquire whether the Department of Justice had referred to the Inspectors General (IG) of the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, or any other department or agency allegations arising out of the government’s extraordinary rendition program detailed in several recently dismissed civil complaints—a referral required by the Department of Justice’s policy on the use of the state secrets privilege issued on September 23, 2009 (hereinafter “the September 23 policy”).  As we have received no response to that letter, and today’s Supreme Court decision makes it highly unlikely that any examination of the issue will take place in the courts, we submit this open letter posing the same question.

If the required referrals have not yet been made, we respectfully request that you now ask the relevant IGs to undertake a joint investigation into the Executive’s use of extraordinary rendition and to issue a public report—with as little redaction as possible—of their findings.  Should the IG investigation uncover government wrongdoing, we also urge that plaintiffs’ legitimate claims be acknowledged and redressed—that the government vindicate their claims by recognizing the ordeals they endured and denouncing any wrongdoing; by issuing a public apology; by providing monetary compensation; and through any other means that justice requires.

[snip]

Consequently, we believe that a thorough investigation—conducted by all relevant Inspectors General with full access to all relevant witnesses, documents, tapes, photographs, and other material, and culminating in a public report—would serve the interests of justice, and would accord with the September 23 policy’s aspiration to “provide greater accountability and reliability in the invocation of the state secrets privilege.” Moreover, where government wrongdoing is uncovered, providing plaintiffs appropriate redress could at least grant some small measure of recompense for the denial of these plaintiffs’ day in court.

This is me officially holding my breath for the Obama Administration to do what they promised on this front.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sotomayor Refuses to Give Government Privilege for Me But Not for Thee

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s first opinion, released yesterday, is interesting for several reasons. Clarence Thomas was a predictable asshole to her about her opinion. (h/t fatster) It was the first time anyone has used the phrase “undocumented immigrant” in a SCOTUS opinion.

But I’m interested in the Obama Administration’s unsuccessful attempt to get the Court to bail them out of troubles they’re having on national security cases like al-Haramain and Jeppesen.

The case, Mohawk v. Carpenter, concerned whether a District Court’s order allowing discovery that threatened the attorney-client privilege merited an immediate appeal. The Government submitted an amicus brief in the case, basically arguing that it did not. But at the same time, the Government tried to write an exception for itself, arguing that attorney-client privilege should not get to bypass the normal appeals process, but state secrets and presidential communications privileges should.

As noted above (pp. 11-12, supra), the collateral order doctrine does not categorically exclude all discovery orders irrespective of their nature or the interests that are at stake. This Court has recognized that important governmental interests, principally of constitutional and statutory significance, justify immediate appealability under the collateral order doctrine. See, e.g., Osborn, supra (Westfall Act certification); P.R. Aqueduct, supra (Eleventh Amendment immunity); Helstoski, supra (Speech or Debate Clause immunity). Although the attorney-client privilege does not meet that high bar, privileges such as those protecting Presidential communications and state secrets qualify for such treatment in light of their structural constitutional grounding under the separation of powers, relatively rare invocation, and unique importance to governmental functions.

The Presidential communications privilege, which draws its authority from the constitutional role of the Executive and “can be viewed as a modern derivative of sovereign immunity,” is well established. Northrop Corp. v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 751 F.2d 395, 398 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (citing Raoul Berger & Abe Krash, Government Immunity from Discovery, 59 Yale L.J. 1451, 1459 n.46 (1950)). “The privilege is fundamental to the operation of Government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution,” and it derives largely from the “necessity for protection of the public interest in candid, objective, and even blunt or harsh opinions in Presidential decisionmaking.” United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 708 (1974). Unlike the attorney-client privilege (see pp. 15-17, supra), the Presidential communications privilege is invoked relatively rarely and only after authorization of senior Executive Branch officials.

[snip]

In addition to the Presidential communications privilege, this Court has long recognized a state-secrets privilege. That privilege may be invoked to avoid “a reasonable danger that compulsion of the evidence will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged.” United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1, 10 (1953). The state-secrets privilege, whose origins extend to early Anglo-American law, “performs a function of constitutional significance, because it allows the executive branch to protect information whose secrecy is necessary to its military and for eign-affairs responsibilities.” El-Masri v. United States, 479 F.3d 296, 303 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 128 S. Ct. 373 (2007) (emphasis added); cf. Totten v. United States, 92 U.S. 105, 107 (1876) (noting that in comparison to cases involving common-law privileges—including the attorney-client privilege—“[m]uch greater reason exists for the application of the principle [against maintenance of a suit resulting in disclosure of confidential matters] to cases of contract for secret services with the
government”). As a matter of practice, the privilege is invoked by a formal request “lodged by the head of the department which has control over the matter, after actual personal consideration by that officer,” underscoring its unique significance to the functions of the Executive Branch and the restraints on its invocation. Reynolds, 345 U.S. at 7-8 (footnote omitted). In addition to their paramount “public importance” and “the need for their prompt resolution,” Nixon, 418 U.S. at 687, orders denying the applicability of the Presidential
communications and state-secrets privileges also satisfy the other traditional elements of the Cohen inquiry. First, an order requiring the disclosure of information over the government’s assertion of those privileges would conclusively resolve the issue. The Executive cannot be expected to persist in withholding information that a court has ordered to be disclosed; to suggest otherwise would be to invite the “unseemly” interbranch conflict that this Court declined to let unfold in Nixon. Id. at 692.

Second, neither the Presidential communications privilege nor state-secrets privilege turns on the merits of the action in which they arise, but rather on the nature of the constitutional prerogatives of the Executive Branch. Accordingly, when compared to the attorney client privilege (see pp. 17-21 supra), the governmental privileges are more readily severable from the merits of the underlying case. For example, the question whether disclosure of a state secret would endanger national security or diplomatic efforts is independent of the merits of the underlying action that seeks the disclosure. If information is properly deemed a state secret, then any assessment of the potential merits of the action or the disclosure’s impact on the merits is beside the point—the state secret cannot be divulged regardless. See Reynolds, 345 U.S. at 11 (state-secrets privilege cannot be overcome by “even the most compelling necessity”). The Court in Nixon, a criminal case where the asserted Presidential communications privilege reflected a “generalized interest in confidentiality,” engaged in a more case-specific inquiry, but only after finding appellate jurisdiction. 418 U.S. at 711.6 [my emphasis]

Now, it’s crystal clear what the Government was trying to do with the state secrets stuff. They were trying to dig themselves out of several holes in the 9th Circuit, by pushing the Court to back their argument that they can appeal an order to disclose evidence anytime a question of state secrets is involved. In particular, if I understand correctly (and please correct me if I’m wrong), this is what the Government tried to do in al-Haramain–appeal Judge Walker’s ruling that al-Haramain’s lawyers could have access to materials on their wiretapping so as to litigate the case.

Note, too, their claim that the Government would never refuse to turn over information after a Judge had ordered them to. Except that was precisely what they seemed to be preparing to do in al-Haramain, not just refusing to turn over information, but to take information already lodged with the Court Security Officer, along with filings that are the property of the Court, away from the Court.

Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

DOJ Circumvents Judge Walker; Attempts To Further Correct Previous Falsities

In what can only be described as a curious filing, the US Government, through the DOJ has submitted a pleading to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the previously terminated al-Haramain appeal originally filed in 2006. In this appeal, on November 16, 2007, the 9th generally upheld the government’s state secrets assertion, but remanded the case to Judge Walker “to consider whether FISA preempts the state secrets privilege and for any proceedings collateral to that determination.” (Walker has so ruled and those proceedings are indeed ongoing and awaiting the Court’s decision of Plaintiffs’ Motion For Summary Judgment). The 9th Circuit’s mandate issued on January 16, 2008.

The new submission filed in the 9th Circuit is nothing short of a brazen attempt to subvert Judge Walker’s trial court authority and jurisdiction by an end run, and is entitled “NOTICE OF LODGING OF IN CAMERA, EX PARTE DECLARATION OF DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE”

The Government hereby respectfully notifies the Court and counsel that it is lodging today with the Court Security Officer copies of an in camera, ex parte classified declaration, dated November 8, 2009, of the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair.

We are making the lodging because an issue arose regarding an inaccuracy in an earlier Government submission in the district court that was part of the record before this Court in an interlocutory appeal in this matter bearing the above caption. The case has been remanded to the district court and an appeal is no longer pending before this Court. The lodging does not call for any action by this Court but is intended to ensure that this Court is informed of the earlier inaccuracy and has available to it classified details with respect to the issue. The Government has informed the district court of the issue, has offered to make available to that court additional classified details in camera, ex parte, and is informing that court that the Government is making the lodging in this Court.

Here is the document. Now the government had just submitted an unclassified declaration of ODNI Blair to the trial court in September, and references said declaration in their new little filing, but does not seem to attach it. Instead, they submit a new classified ex parte declaration from Blair.

Because the inaccuracy was in an earlier Government submission that was part of the record when the case came before this Court on interlocutory appeal, we are today lodging with the Court Security Officer copies of an in camera, ex parte classified declaration, dated November 8, 2009, of Director of National Intelligence Blair. That declaration provides additional classified information regarding the matter. As noted, the lodging ensures that this Court is informed of the issue and has available to it classified details concerning the issue.

Well now, it would seem that Jon Eisenberg has struck a raw nerve with his putative entry into the Horn v. Huddle case as an amicicus urging Royce Lamberth to leave his opinions in place and in force. After having been blistered by Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9th Circuit Will Rehear Jeppesen Suit

This will be a very significant showdown for the Constitution. The 9th Circuit will rehear the government’s argument in the Jeppesen Dataplan suit. From the ACLU:

A federal appeals court today announced that it will hear the government’s appeal of an earlier ruling that allowed an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit to go forward against a Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen DataPlan Inc., for its role in the Bush administration’s unlawful “extraordinary rendition” program. The government claims that allowing the case to be heard would endanger national security.

In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court dismissal of the lawsuit, brought on behalf of five men who were kidnapped, forcibly disappeared and secretly transferred to U.S.-run prisons or foreign intelligence agencies overseas where they were interrogated under torture. The lawsuit charged that Jeppesen knowingly participated by providing critical flight planning and logistical support services to aircraft and crews used by the CIA to forcibly disappear these men to detention and interrogation. The Bush administration had intervened, improperly asserting the “state secrets” privilege to have the case thrown out. The appeals court ruled, as the ACLU has argued, that the government must invoke the “state secrets” privilege with respect to specific evidence, not to dismiss the entire suit. The Obama administration’s appeal of that decision will be heard by an “en banc” panel of 11 judges.

Whichever way the 9th (re)decides, I presume this is headed for Anthony Kennedy’s lap. How can Obama continue to hide all of Bush’s secrets, after all, if he’s only allowed to hide the pieces that are actually classified?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.