Richard Wesley

Did Authorizing Torture Make the National Security Council an Agency Subject to FOIA?

Almost 3 years ago, I discovered that the judge in the ACLU torture FOIA, Alvin Hellerstein (who recently ordered the Administration to release images from torture), was trying to force the Administration to declassify a phrase making it clear torture had been authorized by the September 17, 2001 “Gloves Come Off” Memorandum of Notification. The phrase appeared on a January 28, 2003 Guidelines on Interrogation document signed by George Tenet (this post describes what great CYA including the phrase was).

In my reporting on it, I noted that National Security Advisor James Jones had secretly written a declaration in the suit arguing the phrase couldn’t be released. And I also noted that CIA’s own declarations conflicted about who had made torture a Special Access Program, CIA or the National Security Council.

Ultimately, however, the 2nd Circuit — in an opinion written by Judge Richard Wesley — reversed Hellerstein and permitted the Administration to keep that short phrase secret (though the Administration permitted that detail to be declassified for the Torture Report).

These issues have resurfaced in a related FOIA suit being reviewed by the 2nd Circuit (including Wesley and Judges Reena Raggi and Gerard Lynch).

Back in late 2012, Main Street Legal Services FOIAed the NSC for records on drone killing (including minutes of NSC meetings in 2011). The government refused to respond, arguing NSC is not an Agency subject to FOIA. So Main Street asked for discovery that might help it show that NSC is an Agency. It lost that argument with District Judge Eric Vitaliano, and this Appeal focuses on the issue of whether NSC is an Agency for purposes of FOIA or not.

In addition to pointing to statutory and historical reasons why NSC is an Agency, the appeal also points to things — including torture, but also including things like cybersecurity, crafting Benghazi talking points, and drone-killing — that were run out of NSC. The government, in response, argued that the President was very closely involved in NSC and presided over the Principals Committee, meaning NSC was too proximate to the President to be subject to FOIA. The response also keeps insisting that NSC is an advisory body, not anything that can make decisions without the President.

That back and forth took place in the first half of 2014.

Then, the Torture Report Summary got released, showing that CIA records indicate President Bush was not briefed on torture until 2006 but that NSC figures — Alberto Gonzales and Condi Rice, among others — told CIA torture was authorized. Main Street wrote a letter in February pointing to the evidence that the President was not in the loop and that NSC authorized torture.

The SSCI Report found that NSC committees, on which the President does not sit, debated, authorized, and directed CIA to apply specific interrogation techniques to specific detainees. In 2004, for example, CIA “sought special approval from the National Security Council Principals Committee” to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainee Janat Gul. Thereafter, NSC principals met and “agreed that ‘[g]iven the current threat and risk of delay, CIA was authorized and directed to utilize” the techniques on Mr. Gul.

The question of who authorized torture thus became a central issue at the oral argument in this suit on March 2 (this discussion starts after 34:00). After Raggi raised this issue, Wesley went on with some urgency about the possibility that someone started torturing without the input of the President.

Judge Wesley: Are you saying then that anything the CIA did in terms of enhanced interrogation techniques clearly, was clearly a Presidential directive?

NSC Counsel Jaynie Lilley:  No, your honor —

Wesley: Well then, well if that’s not the case, its a very curious position for you to take because some of these bear heavy burdens. Some of these assertions that you’re making that the President is at the end of all these decision chains bear heavy burdens and I don’t quite understand it. Congress said sole duty is to advise and assist the President. If someone else decides to use enhanced interrogation techniques and we decide that this is done by the group, solely by the advisor, assistant to the President, then it’s the President’s decision is it not? Did the decision flow through the NSC?

Lilley: Your Honor, many decisions–

Wesley: Would it, structurally, I’ll it easier, would it structurally have flowed through the NSC as it’s currently structure pursuant to presidential order and an act of Congress, would a decision to conduct enhanced interrogation techniques have flowed through the NSC up to the President. Pursuant to the way it’s structured now.

Lilley: Your Honor, let me be sure I’m answering the question that your asking. There are decisions that are made on matters of national security policy that come through the various–

Wesley: Pursuant to law and the structure of the NSC who had the authority?  Did only one person have the authority to order enhanced interrogations techniques?

Lilley: Your Honor, –

Wesley [voice is rising]: Yes or no?!

Lilley: I cannot speak to individual decisions –

Wesley: Well, if you can’t tell me, then you’re telling me that then the President perhaps didn’t make that decision. And then you’re telling me that someone else did. And if someone else did, then I begin to have a problem. Because I have a hard time understanding how their sole function is to advise or assist the President if suddenly they decide, independent of any Presidential approval, that they can torture someone!

Lilley: Your Honor–

Wesley: It’s very simple Counselor, and I’ve been troubled by the government’s position on this throughout. I’ve been troubled — for twenty years the Office of Legal Counsel said that this was an Agency. And then suddenly in a letter, in 1994, for some reason the Agency flips. We have in the legislative record, we have the committee notes from the two committees, and what is one of the entities that’s listed when they decided to include the Executive office, what is one of the Agencies that Congress lists, one of the groups that Congress lists as an Agency? The NSC. Who created the NSC? The President didn’t. An act of Congress did. An Act of Congress creates two of the Subcommittees. A very curious advisor forced on the President — it sounds like a Separation of Powers issue to me. But, tell me. And then I won’t ask again. And if you don’t want to answer my question don’t answer.

Pursuant to the way the it is currently structured if in your view the NSC is solely an advisory authority, who had the authority to order enhanced interrogation techniques? Who?

Lilley: In any matter of national security policy, there are two places where decisions can be made. One by the President and one by that Agency with the statutory authority to take the act.

Wesley: So you’re telling me that the CIA had the authority to do that?


Wesley: The Director of the CIA could have done this independent of the President’s directive?

Lilley: Your Honor, I cannot speak to that.

Wesley: But for purposes of this discussion you’re saying ‘not someone in the NSC’?

Lilley: The NSC could not — does not direct any individual Agency to take individual actions.

Wesley went onto to describe the plight of the CIA that might not want to do something (torture) it has been ordered to do by the NSC, “it’s on him, legally, not on the NSC.” “Yes, your Honor,” Lilley agreed.

While Wesley didn’t say so, that is, precisely, what Tenet argued when he noted Torture was done pursuant to Presidential order on his 2003 Interrogation document, dodging responsibility for torture. But if Lilley’s claim is correct, then CIA bears all the legal responsibility for torture.

At the end of the hearing, Wesley asked Lilley whether they intend to respond to Main Street’s letter. When Lilley said no, Wesley and Raggi specifically instructed Lilley to respond, noting actual page numbers.

In its response on March 16, the government — some members of which have been arguing for months that the NSC approved torture at every step of the process — newly asserted (ignoring the references that show Bush was never briefed until 2006) that George Tenet was only getting NSC’s advice; he was not being ordered or authorized by them.

Another cites a CIA official’s notes indicating that the Principals Committee “agreed” that CIA was “authorized and directed” to engage in certain activity, confirming the CIA had such authority, and that the then-Attorney General approved the resulting action. See id. at 345. These references confirm that the NSC functions in accordance with the advice and assistance role assigned to it by statute and by the President (currently in Presidential Policy Directive-1) as an interagency forum for coordination and exercises no independent decisional authority. The authority for the underlying decisions rested with the relevant heads of departments and agencies or the President himself.

Remember, DOJ has been claiming it never opened this document. Has it now done so?

But the SSCI evidence that Bush was never briefed is a point Main Street made in a letter last night.

Defendant still fails to explain who authorized the torture if not NSC, as CIA’s own records describe, especially given that CIA did not brief the President until years later.

A great deal of documentation shows that “NSC” (or rather, Dick Cheney and David Addington) authorized torture. But the NSC is trying to sustain the unsustainable position that a Memorandum of Notification not listing torture authorized torture, that Bush never got briefed on torture, and that all those meetings at which NSC members (and Dick Cheney) authorized torture didn’t amount to authorizing torture.

Because if it admitted the truth — that NSC or the Vice President authorized torture without any review by the President — then it would make all these documents, the 9000 documents President Obama got CIA to successfully hide, subject to FOIA.

And then we’d really start having some fun.

Update: I’ve added some to my transcription from the hearing and some additional analysis.

Lost Among the Findings in Syria

The Neocons have been pressuring Obama to do something in Syria. So it’s thoroughly unsurprising that we’re officially learning what we’ve known for months: the CIA has been involved in Syria. According to Mark Hosenball the Finding Obama signed authorizing such actions permits us to collaborate at a “secret” command center on or close to our air base at Incirlik.

A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.


This “nerve center” is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence.

The Finding doesn’t authorize arming the rebels (though Hosenball’s sources seem unsure about the general scope of the Finding), but NBC has reported that the Saudis and Qataris have already armed them with shoulder-launched missiles.

It’s just like old times! The US partnering with Saudis to get shoulder-launched missiles into the hands of rebels with dubious loyalties. Whatever could go wrong with that?

There are two details about this that deserve notice.

What happened to the leak hawks in Congress?

First, this story is based on the leak of a covert Finding–precisely the kind of leak that Congress has gone on the warpath against. Hosenball attributes his reporting to US sources–an attribution that can (though doesn’t necessarily) refer to Congressional sources.

U.S. sources familiar with the matter said.


A U.S. government source acknowledged

And while he notes–and names–the Senators who have been pressuring Obama to do precisely what he has been doing for months, Hosenball doesn’t name the members of Congress who are opposed to such an action.

Some U.S. lawmakers, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have criticized Obama for moving too slowly to assist the rebels and have suggested the U.S. government should become directly involved in arming Assad’s opponents.

Other lawmakers have suggested caution, saying too little is known about the many rebel groups.

In short, chances are not insignificant that a Congressional source leaked the contents of a Finding authorizing covert operations.

And yet … crickets!

Those same Senate Intelligence Committee leak hawks who have authorized a range of stupid actions to prevent leaks seem unperturbed by a leak revealing information that is as sensitive as the leaks they’re demanding be investigated.

How does anti-Assad Finding relate to the Assad-cooperation authorized under the Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification?

Then there’s this. In his description of all the things included in the Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification authorizing the war on terror, Bob Woodward said cooperation with Syria (and Libya) were included.

[George Tenet] called for initiating intelligence contact with some rogue states such as Libya and Syria that he said might be helpful in trying to destroy al Qaeda. For the CIA to obtain helpful information against the terrorists, they might have to get their hands dirty. (Bush at War 77)

We know the MON included such cooperation with Libya because liberated documents have reflected cooperation on renditions. And Maher Arar, who was rendered to Syria and tortured, can tell you all about what our cooperation with Syria entailed.

The thing is, the MON authorizing cooperation with Syria remains in effect. We know that to be true because Judge Richard Wesley, in enabling the government to keep all mention of this MON secret a few months ago, stated it pertained to “active intelligence activity.” Rather than writing a new MON–one that doesn’t give CIA carte blanche in deciding the limits of things like targeted killings–Obama is still relying on this MON for things like killing American citizens.

So does that mean the CIA is at once authorized to share intelligence with Bashar al-Assad (under the Gloves Come Off MON) and help rebels overthrow and probably kill him (under this new Finding)?

Probably, there is a very simple explanation for this (and for the fact that we helped to kill Moammar Qaddafi, as well). Probably, the new FInding (and whatever Finding authorized the activities our spooks engaged in in Libya) simply includes language canceling the prior language authorizing cooperation with Assad. So no big deal, really.

Still, doesn’t that give lie to the Administration’s seeming treatment of that 11 year old MON as inviolate? That is, if this Finding renders (heh) part of that MON meaningless, then maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for Obama to write a new MON, one that involved actual oversight.

Either Torture Is Ongoing Or the Administration Is Hiding Something Else

I don’t mean to be ungrateful that the NYT wrote an editorial about the 2nd Circuit’s decision to help the CIA hide its torture documents from FOIA. I’m not! I’m glad they’re noting how the courts are collaborating in hiding our government’s crimes from us.

But I’m going to be a bit pedantic about it.

As almost every outlet has when covering the 2nd Circuit decision, the editorial focuses primarily on the picture of Abu Zubaydah after he was tortured. That makes sense. A picture is so concrete, so easy to understand.

It does, however, also mention the court’s ruling hiding what the government has all-but confirmed is mention of the Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification. But it interprets those references to “concern the origins” of the torture program (I’m also grateful that NYT used the word “torture,” btw).

The court also said the C.I.A. was justified in withholding two passages in Justice Department memos that appear to concern the origins of the Bush torture program.

Now, I don’t blame the NYT for not saying this is the Gloves Come Off MON–while both Judge Alvin Hellerstein and DOJ have all-but confirmed that, that’s not adequate proof for the NYT. But these passages either represent more than “the origins of the torture program,” or we’re still in the torture business.

That’s because in his opinion, Judge Richard Wesley makes it clear that the references are to an ongoing activity.

We give substantial weight to the Government’s declarations, which establish that disclosing the redacted portions of the OLC memoranda would reveal the existence and scope of a highly classified, active intelligence activity.

In the middle of an opinion discussing torture, Wesley said some activity relating to torture  is still active.

Now, I’m not saying I think torture (well, waterboarding, anyway) is still ongoing. As I have noted, all the evidence suggests the government is hiding this very short reference to the Gloves Come Off MON because releasing it might amount to admission of all the other covert programs either explicitly or implicitly included in it–including the drone program, but also including things like buying the services of the Egyptian intelligence services.

Furthermore, we reject the district court’s suggestion that certain portions of the redacted information are so general in relation to previously disclosed activities of the CIA that their disclosure would not compromise national security. It is true that the Government has disclosed significant aspects of the CIA’s discontinued detention and interrogation program, but its declarations explain in great detail how the withheld information pertains to intelligence activities unrelated to the discontinued program.

But until the Administration explains all this, what we’ve got is a Circuit Court judge saying that he can’t release a half sentence phrase–one appearing in the title of Torture Guidelines–because that half sentence phrase relates to an activity that is still ongoing.

Which is it folks? Torture? Or simply a whole bunch of equally terrible things?

Government Invokes Valerie Plame to Argue CIA Acknowledgment that Bush Authorized Torture Is Not Official Acknowledgment

As you’ll recall, back in April I went on a week-long rant about the great lengths–including submitting a secret declaration from the National Security Advisor–the Obama Administration had gone to hide a short reference to the September 17, 2001 “Gloves Come Off” Memorandum of Notification. In doing so, it appears the Obama Administration hid George Tenet’s invocation of the Presidential MON that authorized the capture and detention of terrorists but which the Bush Administration used as its authorization to torture those alleged terrorists. (post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4, post 5, post 6, post 7)

In a classified hearing on March 9, the government claimed that releasing the reference in question would “reveal[] for the first time the existence and the scope of” what now clearly appears to be the MON. After I went on my rant, the ACLU informed the Circuit Court that the claim might be false. If the reference was indeed to the MON, ACLU wrote, then the CIA had already revealed that the September 17, 2001 MON authorized torture in this litigation.

If true, it may be relevant to this Court’s consideration that the CIA officially acknowledged the existence of that memorandum in this very litigation.

In response to appellees’ Freedom of Information Act request, the CIA identified as responsive “a 14-page memorandum dated 17 September 2001 from President Bush to the Director of the CIA pertaining to the CIA’s authorization to detain terrorists” and “to set up detention facilities outside the United States.” Eighth Declaration of Marilyn A. Dorn

On Friday, the government responded, effectively saying that Marilyn Dorn’s declaration doesn’t count as official acknowledgement of the MON.

For the reasons set forth in the Government’s classified filings, the disclosures identified in plaintiffs’ letter, including the information provided in the Dorn declaration, do not constitute an official disclosure of the information redacted from the OLC memoranda.

Notably, in its discussion of the cases which it cited to support its claim that Dorn’s description of the MON doesn’t count, it also included language that would address John Rizzo’s extensive blabbing about the MON as well as Glenn Carle’s CIA Publication Review Board-approved reference to CIA having received a Finding covering torture (neither of which the ACLU mentioned in its letter). But look what case they cited to make that argument.

This Court applies “[a] strict test” to claims of official disclosure. Wilson v. CIA, Continue reading

The Memorandum of Notification the CIA Pretends Has Never Been Acknowledged

“We don’t do that sort of thing,” [Glenn Carle responded to a CIA Counterterrorism Center Deputy about “going beyond SERE” with a detainee].

“We do now,” Wilmington’s voice was flat. The conversation remained quiet.

“What about EO12333? We’ve never done that sort of thing. The Agency’d never do that. We’d need a finding, at least.”


“We have it.” Wilmington’s manner brightened a little. “We have a letter from the president. We can do whatever we need to do. We’re covered.”

–Glenn Carle, The Interrogator: An Education, approved by CIA’s Publication Review Board prior to its summer 2011 publication

Yesterday, I described how the CIA appears to be refusing to release via FOIA any mention–or even a substitution mention–of references to the September 17, 2001 Presidential Memorandum of Notification the government claims authorizes torture and a bunch of other activities.

In this post I’d like to deal with AUSA Tara LaMorte’s March 9, 2012 claim that what I believe to be the MON has never been acknowledged before.

And that’s important because here, the references to [half line redacted] contained in the OLC memos reveals for the first time the existence and the scope of [1.5 lines redacted] That has never before been acknowledged, and would be acknowledged for the first time simply by revealing [few words redacted] in the OLC memos.

Now, as it happens, the CIA made an extensive declaration about the MON in a statement from Marilyn Dorn, the CIA’s Information Review Officer, back in 2007. The description of it–item 61–starts on page 34.

The declaration is actually pretty funny. ACLU had asked for any declarations signed by the President authorizing the torture program. There is none. So in her declaration, Dorn as much as said this MON–which doesn’t mention interrogation–was the MON in question.

Item No. 61 requested a “Directive signed by President Bush that grants CIA, the authority to set up detention facilities outside the United States and/or outlining interrogation methods that may be used against Detainees.” The CIA did not locate a document signed by President Bush outlining interrogation methods that may be used against detainees. The CIA did locate one document signed by President Bush that pertains to the CIA’s authorization to set up detention facilities outside the United States. The document responsive to Item No. 61 is a 14-page memorandum dated 17 September 2001 from President Bush to the Director of the CIA pertaining to the CIA’s authorization to detain terrorists.

So in response to ACLU’s FOIA, which basically said, “give us the legally-required MON that authorized torture,” Dorn said, “we don’t have one, but here’s what we’ve been using for all these years.” That’s pretty significant acknowledgment of what kind of authorization underlies the torture program.

Continue reading

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