Posts

In 2003, OLC Doubled Down on Unlimited (de)Classification Authority for the President

One of the tactics those in DOJ attempted to use in 2004 to put some controls on Stellar Wind, it appears from the DOJ IG Report, was to point to legal requirements to inform Congress (for example, to inform Congress that the Attorney General had decided not to enforce particular laws), which might have led to enough people in Congress learning of the program to impose some limits on it. For example, Robert Mueller apparently tried to get the Executive to brief the Judiciary Committees, in addition to the Gang of Four, about the program.

On March 16, 2004 Gonzales wrote a letter to Jim Comey in response to DOJ’s efforts to force the Administration to follow the law. Previous reporting revealed that Gonzales told Comey he misunderstood the White House’s interest in DOJ’s opinion.

Your memorandum appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of the President’s expectations regarding the conduct of the Department of Justice. While the President was, and remains, interested in any thoughts the Department of Justice may have on alternative ways to achieve effectively the goals of the activities authorized by the Presidential Authorization of March 11, 2004, the President has addressed definitively for the Executive Branch in the Presidential Authorization the interpretation of the law.

This appears to have led directly to Comey drafting his resignation letter.

But what previous reporting didn’t make clear was that Gonzales also claimed the Administration had unfettered authority to decide whether or not to share classified information (and that, implicitly, it could blow off statutory Congressional reporting requirements).

Gonzales letter also addressed Comey’s comments about congressional notification. Citing Department of the Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518 (1988) and a 2003 OLC opinion, Gonzales’s letter stated that the President has the constitutional authority to define and control access to the nation’s secrets, “including authority to determine the extent to which disclosure may be made outside the Executive Branch.” (TS//STLW//SI/OC/NF) [PDF 504]

I’m as interested in this as much for the timing of the memo — 2003 — as the indication that the Executive asserted the authority to invoke unlimited authority over classification as a way to flout reporting mandates (both with regards to Stellar Wind, but the implication is, generally as well).

The most likely time frame for this decision would be around March 25, 2003, when President Bush was also rewriting the Executive Order on classification (this EO is most famous because it gave the Vice President new authorities over classifying information). If that’s right, it would confirm that Bush’s intent with the EO (and the underlying OLC memo) was to expand the ability to invoke classification for whatever reasons.

And if that OLC opinion was written around the time of the March 2003 EO, it would mean it was on the books (and, surely, known by David Addington) when he counseled Scooter Libby in July 2003 he could leak whatever it was Dick Cheney told him to leak to Judy Miller, up to and including Valerie Plame’s identity.

But I’m also interested that this footnote was classified under STLW, the Stellar Wind marking. That may not be definitive, especially given the innocuous reference to the OLC memo. But it’s possible that means the 2003 opinion — the decision to share or not share classified information according to the whim of the President — was tied to Stellar Wind. That would be interesting given that George Tenet and John Yoo were declaring Iraq and their claimed conspirators in the US were terrorists permissible for surveillance around the same time.

Finally, I assume this OLC memo, whatever it says, is still on the books. And given how it was interpreted in the past — that OLC could simply ignore reporting mandates — and that the government continued to flout reporting mandates until at least 2010, even those tied specifically to surveillance, I assume that the Executive still believes it can use a claimed unlimited authority over classification to trump legally mandated reporting requirements.

That’s worth keeping in mind as we debate a bill, USA F-ReDux, celebrated, in part, for its reporting requirements.

Navy v. Egan, not Just Branzburg v. Hayes, Needs Fixed

Today, 340 new journalists will join the 10 or so who have been covering the Bradley Manning prosecution closely for the last several years; his trial starts today at Fort Meade.

Expect to see a bunch of essays on secrecy to mark the beginning of the trial.

This one, in which Steven Coll calls for the Supreme Court to revisit the Branzburg v. Hayes decision that established a spirit but not a law protecting press sources, has already generated a lot of attention.

In the long run, to rebalance the national-security state and to otherwise revitalize American democracy, the United States requires a Supreme Court willing to deepen protections for investigative reporters, as the majority in Branzburg would not.

Among some other minor factual inaccuracies (including what the AP UndieBomb 2.0 leak was originally about), it includes this claim.

[Obama’s] longest-serving advisers are disciplined and insular to a fault; press leaks offend their aesthetic of power.

While I agree Obama’s advisors are insular to a fault, and agree they revel in an aesthetic of power, they do not despise all press leaks. Even aside from the typical policy debate leaks of classified information, the White House has long reveled in “leaking” classified information to selected members of the press, to get the information out there on its own terms. The tactic is not new — it is precisely the A1 cut-out approach the Bush Administration used to get us into the Iraq War. But the Obama Administration may have expanded its use (that is actually the reason Republicans in Congress were demanding investigations of the leaks that followed the AP story, the ones that, unlike the AP, exposed our mole).

Which is why Coll proposes an inadequate solution to what I agree is the key problem.

Obama inherited a bloated national-security state. It contains far too many official secrets and far too many secret-keepers—more than a million people now hold top-secret clearances. Under a thirty-year-old executive order issued by the White House, the intelligence agencies must inform the Justice Department whenever they believe that classified information has been disclosed illegally to the press. These referrals operate on a kind of automatic pilot, and the system is unbalanced. Prosecutors in Justice’s national-security division initially decide on whether to make a criminal case or to defer to the First Amendment. The record shows that in recent years the division has been bent on action.

I’m not opposed to establishing clearer laws about when a journalist’s sources may be protected. But that can be used — as Dick Cheney tried to use it — as a screen for his exposure of Valerie Plame. Protecting journalists’ sources will not only protect real whistleblowers, but it will also protect the system of official leaks that both Bush and Obama have used to accrue power and avoid accountability.

So not only is fixing Branzburg v. Hayes not enough to fix our “unbalanced … bloated national security state,” it doesn’t get at the underlying problem

As a threshold measure, journalists should be calling for the limitation or repeal of the Espionage Act, which is the real stick Obama is using to cut down on unsanctioned leaks. It’s bad enough for whistleblowers to risk losing their clearance, and with it, a well-compensated livelihood. But as soon as you start talking extended prison sentences, as soon as you start accusing whistleblowers of being worse than an enemy’s spy because they shared damning information with the public generally, that’s going to silence unsanctioned leaks.

Just as importantly, this entire structure of abuse of power rests on a different SCOTUS decision, Navy v. Egan, which gives the Executive absolute control over security clearances (and therefore the less powerful leverage usually wielded against whistleblowers, the ability to strip their clearance), but which has been interpreted by Bush and Obama to give the Executive unfettered authority to determine what is secret and what is not. This decision — which is precisely what David Addington told Scooter Libby he could rely on to justify outing Plame on Cheney’s order — is also what the Obama Administration cited when it refused to litigate al-Haramain and in so doing granted the Bush Administration impunity for illegal wiretapping. The Executive’s claim to have unlimited authority to decide what is secret and not is also what prevents the Senate Intelligence Committee from declassifying the torture report on its own authority. It is also the basis for the authority to stall releasing video of US helicopters gunning down a Reuters team to Reuters under FOIA, which led to Manning leaking it to WikiLeaks himself.

The Obama and Bush Administrations have claimed that no one — not Congress, not the Courts — has the authority to review their arbitrary use of secrecy to accrue more power. That claim is an expansive reading of Navy v. Egan, but thus far not one anyone has challenged before SCOTUS. And that is what has enabled them (with the limited exception of the Plame outing) to avoid all consequences for their asymmetric use of leaks.

So, yes, it would be useful if SCOTUS decided that journalists and others engaging in legitimate investigation can protect sources, especially when investigating national security. But until the underlying system — the Executive’s claim that it can abuse secrecy to protect itself — is changed, secrecy will remain a cancer rotting our democracy.

Appeals Court Treats Commissary Gatorade Supplies as a “Clear and Present Danger”

Navy v. Egan–the SCOTUS case Executive Branch officials always point to to claim unlimited powers over classification authority–just got bigger.

Berry v. Conyers extends the national security employment veto over commissary jobs

The original 1988 case pertained to Thomas Egan, who lost his job as a laborer at a naval base when he was denied a security clearance. He appealed his dismissal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which then had to determine whether it had authority to review the decision to fire him based on the security clearance denial. Ultimately, SCOTUS held that MSPB could not review the decision of the officer who first fired Egan.

The grant or denial of security clearance to a particular employee is a sensitive and inherently discretionary judgment call that is committed by law to the appropriate Executive Branch agency having the necessary expertise in protecting classified information. It is not reasonably possible for an outside, nonexpert body to review the substance of such a judgment, and such review cannot be presumed merely because the statute does not expressly preclude it.

Unlike Egan, the plaintiffs in this case did not have jobs that required they have access to classified information. Nevertheless, plaintiffs Rhonda Conyers (who was an accounting clerk whose “security threat” pertained to personal debt) and Devon Haughton Northover (who worked in a commissary and also charged discrimination) were suspended and demoted, respectively, when the government deemed them a security risk.

In a decision written by Evan Wallach and joined by Alan Lourie, the Federal Circuit held that the Egan precedent,

require[s] that courts refrain from second-guessing Executive Branch agencies’ national security determinations concerning eligibility of an individual to occupy a sensitive position, which may not necessarily involve access to classified information.

That is, the Federal government can fire you in the name of national security if you have a “sensitive” job, whether or not you actually have access to classified information.

As Timothy Dyk’s dissent notes, the effect of this ruling is to dramatically limit civil service protections for any position the government deems sensitive, both within DOD–where both Conyers and Northover work–and outside it.

Under the majority’s expansive holding, where an employee’s position is designated as a national security position, see 5 C.F.R. § 732.201(a), the Board lacks jurisdiction to review the underlying merits of any removal, suspension, demotion, or other adverse employment action covered by 5 U.S.C. § 7512.

[snip]

As OPM recognizes, under the rule adopted by the majority, “[t]he Board’s review . . . is limited to determining whether [the agency] followed necessary procedures . . . [and] the merits of the national security determinations are not subject to review.”

In doing so, the dissent continues, it would gut protection against whistleblower retaliation and discrimination.

As the Board points out, the principle adopted by the majority not only precludes review of the merits of adverse actions, it would also “preclude Board and judicial review of whistleblower retaliation and a whole host of other constitutional and statutory violations for federal employees subjected to otherwise appealable removals and other adverse actions.” Board Br. at 35. This effect is explicitly conceded by OPM, which agrees that the agency’s “liability for damages for alleged discrimination or retaliation” would not be subject to review. OPM Br. at 25. OPM’s concession is grounded in existing law since the majority expands Egan to cover all “national security” positions, and Egan has been held to foreclose whistleblower, discrimination, and other constitutional claims.

Tracking Gatorade supplies can now represent a “clear and present danger”

There are a couple of particularly troubling details about how Wallach came to his decision. In a footnote trying to sustain the claim that a commissary employee might be a national security threat, Wallach argues that Northover could represent a threat in the commissary by observing how much rehydration products and sunglasses service members were buying.

The Board goes too far by comparing a government position at a military base commissary to one in a “Seven Eleven across the street.”

[snip]

Commissary employees do not merely observe “[g]rocery store stock levels” or other-wise publicly observable information. Resp’ts’ Br. 20. In fact, commissary stock levels of a particular unclassified item – sunglasses, for example, with shatterproof lenses, or rehydration products – might well hint at deployment orders to a particular region for an identifiable unit. Read more

Security Clearance Tyranny

Let’s review three data points on security clearances. They’ll show that our system of security clearances are increasingly becoming an arbitrary system of control that does more to foster cowed national security employees than to foster actual national security.

We’ve already discussed one of these data points: James Clapper’s decision to add an as-yet undefined question to Intelligence Community polygraphs probing unauthorized (but not authorized) disclosure of classified information.

First, those agencies within the IC that have mandatory lie detector tests will add an unspecified question about “unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

(1) mandating that a question related to unauthorized disclosure of classified information be added to the counterintelligence polygraph used by all intelligence agencies that administer the examination (CIA, DIA, DOE, FBI, NGA, NRO, and NSA).

Not only does this cover just some who might have access to classified information, leaving some agencies, contractors, Congressional employees, and White House employees, not to mention our international intelligence partners, in the clear. But it also brackets off the “authorized” disclosure of classified information.

It’s a bad decision because it doesn’t end the asymmetrical abuse of classified information and it’s a bad decision because polygraphs are unreliable.

But it’s also unreliable because at least one of the IC agencies involved slated for this new question–the National Reconnaissance Office–has already been conducting fishing expeditions during polygraphs to find sensitive information.

The National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with cash bonuses, a McClatchy investigation found.

The disclosures include a wide range of behavior and private thoughts such as drug use, child abuse, suicide attempts, depression and sexual deviancy. The agency, which oversees the nation’s spy satellites, records the sessions that were required for security clearances and stores them in a database.

As McClatchy reports, the NRO pursued such confessions–which are outside the scope of what they’re supposed to ask–even after they were warned to stop.

What’s particularly troubling is that the NRO is not using this information–or not in the most obvious way, by prosecuting those who reveal past crimes. Read more