Obama’s Two “Ifs” on FISA: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Briefs on FISA are coming out in Northern California so fast and furious it’s hard to keep them straight. Just as a reminder there are two main cases:

  • al-Haramain, in which the Bush (and now Obama) Administration has invoked State Secrets to prevent lawyers for the defunct charity al-Haramain from using clear evidence that Bush wiretapped them illegally to prove that Bush wiretapped them illegally
  • Retroactive immunity (Jewel/EFF), in which the Electronic Frontier Foundation is challenging the retroactive immunity statute Congress passed last year on Constitutional grounds

The Obama stance on these two cases is worth looking at in conjunction because the Obama position toward congressionally-passed law is perfectly crafted to gut civil liberties (and Article III authority), all based on Obama’s interpretation of "if."

Astoundingly, both al-Haramain and retroactive immunity are almost certainly headed for the Appeals Court to rule on the meaning of two "if’s" (and one "shall") appearing in FISA-related law.

"If" the Attorney General Wants the President to Avoid Penalty for Illegal Wiretapping

Here’s the language Judge Walker just reviewed in FISA 1806(f) in the al-Haramain case:

Whenever a court or other authority is notified pursuant to subsection (c) or (d) of this section, or whenever a motion is made pursuant to subsection (e) of this section, or whenever any motion or request is made by an aggrieved person pursuant to any other statute or rule of the United States or any State before any court or other authority of the United States or any State to discover or obtain applications or orders or other materials relating to electronic surveillance or to discover, obtain, or suppress evidence or information obtained or derived from electronic surveillance under this chapter, the United States district court or, where the motion is made before another authority, the United States district court in the same district as the authority, shall, notwithstanding any other law, if the Attorney General files an affidavit under oath that disclosure or an adversary hearing would harm the national security of the United States, review in camera and ex parte the application, order, and such other materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary to determine whether the surveillance of the aggrieved person was lawfully authorized and conducted. In making this determination, the court may disclose to the aggrieved person, under appropriate security procedures and protective orders, portions of the application, order, or other materials relating to the surveillance only where such disclosure is necessary to make an accurate determination of the legality of the surveillance. [my emphasis]

The government (under both Bush and Obama) has argued that the "shall" in 1806(f)–requiring the District Court Judge to review in camera and ex parte the materials relating to the surveillance to see if was legal–only kicks in after the "if" tied to the Attorney General in it. That is, the District Court Judge only reviews the underlying materials if the Attorney General files an affidavit saying that an adversary hearing would harm national security.

Judge Walker thinks that’s bullshit. Read more

A Whole Heap of Bad Faith in al-Haramain

The Obama Administration has filed its latest brief in the al-Haramain case. In its effort to shield the Bush Administration from liability for their crimes, it engages in a whole host of bad faith so as to prevent Judge Walker from actually making a determination that the al-Haramain lawyers were illegally spied on.

 As a reminder, Judge Walker’s January 5 order did three things. First, it answered the question the Appeals Court had remanded the case back to Walker to answer: does FISA, which imposes criminal penalties for illegal wiretapping, pre-empt state secrets claims? Walker answered that question in the affirmative: he reasoned that, if Congress passed a law imposing penalties on the executive for breaking the law, the executive couldn’t very well restrict access to the evidence that provides proof that the executive broke the law. Congress wouldn’t have provided for penalties if it didn’t intend for it to be possible to litigate those penalties.

Next, Walker said he would review the wiretap log that proves the government spied on al-Haramain illegally to see whether it proves the government spied on al-Haramain illegally. Very important: he said he would conduct this review in secret!!

Finally, Walker laid the groundwork for talking about how the case would proceed going forward, if, on review of the document proving the government spied on the al-Haramain lawyers illegally, he determined that the government spied on the al-Haramain lawyers illegally (frankly, I think this was a mistake on Walker’s part, but nevermind). Here’s the most important passage in which he does this:

To be more specific, the court will review the Sealed Document ex parte and in camera. The court will then issue an order regarding whether plaintiffs may proceed —— that is, whether the Sealed Document establishes that plaintiffs were subject to electronic surveillance not authorized by FISA. As the court understands its obligation with regard to classified materials, only by placing and maintaining some or all of its future orders in this case under seal may the court avoid indirectly disclosing some aspect of the Sealed Document’s contents. Unless counsel for plaintiffs are granted access to the court’s rulings and, possibly, to at least some of defendants’ classified filings, however, the entire remaining course of this litigation will be ex parte. This outcome would deprive plaintiffs of due process to an extent inconsistent with Congress’s purpose in enacting FISA’s sections 1806(f) and 1810. Read more

That’s Why They Call It “Domestic” Surveillance

One of my favorite parts in the EFF brief arguing that the retroactive immunity passed by Congress last year is unconstitutional is their response to the telecom brief’s claim that the President has inherent authority over foreign affairs, and so doesn’t need specific details regarding which telecoms should get immunity for having broken the law on President Bush’s orders.

EFF points out that, if this were just about foreign affairs, we wouldn’t be here.

Nor can the standardless delegation of section 802 be justified, as the carriers suggest (Carriers’ Br. at 3-6), by reference to cases involving the President’s exercise of inherent constitutional power over foreign relations with other nations or his inherent power to regulate and control the military forces. First, despite the efforts of the government and the carriers to blur the difference, the President’s inherent powers over foreign relations and the military do not extend to the warrantless dragnet electronic surveillance and interception within the United States of the domestic communications of millions of American citizens who have no connection to any foreign power. The President has no inherent constitutional authority to conduct such activities, as this Court has held, Hepting v. AT&T Corp., 439 F. Supp.2d 974, 1006 (N.D. Cal. 2006); see also In re Nat’l Security Agency Telecom. Records Litig., 564 F. Supp.2d 1109, 1121 (N.D. Cal. 2008), nor to order the courts to terminate litigation challenging such activities.

This is about domestic surveillance, not foreign intelligence, dummies.

Now, we know that the Bush Administration did, at one point, claim its inherent authority tied to foreign affairs extends right into the apartment buildings of average Americans.

The memorandum, which was directed to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes, addresses whether the president has constitutional or statutory authority to use military force inside the United States in terrorism-related situations and, if so, whether such domestic military operations would be barredby either the Fourth Amendment or the federal Posse Comitatus statute. Examples of the type of force considered for purposes of the analysis include, but are not limited to: (1) destroying civilian aircraft that are believed to have been hijacked; (2) deploying troops to control traffic in and out of a major American city; (3) seizing or attacking civilian property, such as apartment buildings, office complexes, or ships, believed to contain terrorism suspects; and, (4) using military-level eavesdropping and surveillance technology on domestic targets.

Read more

Funny Telecom Games on Retroactive Immunity

There are two funny things in the telecom brief in response to Judge Walker’s questions about the retroactive immunity statute. (Here is EFF’s brief and Eric Holder’s.)

Don’t Cite the Statute

First, in spite of the fact that Walker asked the parties to address a specific question about a specific clause of the FISA Amendment Act, the telecom lawyers don’t get around to actually discussing the language of that clause until page 15 of a 17 page brief. There’s a reason for that. Once they do discuss the clause in question, they’re faced with precisely the problem that Walker (and bmaz and Mary) have identified: the language doesn’t tell the Attorney General whether he has to give the telecoms immunity, or simply can give immunity, at his whim.

Here, § 802(a) does not expressly state whether certification is mandatory or discretionary. It provides merely that a “civil action . . . shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the district court” that at least one of the five criteria in § 802(a) has been met (emphasis added). The Attorney General cannot submit a certification unless the standards of § 802(a) have been satis-fied, and the word “if” simply reflects that these standards will not be met in every case. But noth-ing in the statute specifies whether the Attorney General may decline to certify after determining that a case is eligible for certification. The statute does not state, for instance, that the decision whether to certify is committed to the “discretion” of the Attorney General. Nor does the statute use permissive language, such as the word “may.”

While Section 802 also does not specify that certification is mandatory, what is critical for purposes of constitutional avoidance is that it fairly admits of that construction. Section 802(e) re-fers to the “authority and duties of the Attorney General” (emphasis added). The use of the word “duties” indicates that § 802 imposes some mandatory obligation on the Attorney General, but the statute does not expressly identify which of the tasks it describes are mandatory. This ambiguity could be resolved by reading § 802 as imposing on the Attorney General a “dut[y]” to certify if he finds the predicate facts, if it were necessary to construe the statute in this way in order to save its constitutionality. Read more

The Guy Who Refused to Wiretap Illegally Is Off to Jail

The full 10th Circuit just decided to send Joseph Nacchio off to jail after reinstating his insider trading conviction.

A federal appeals court reinstated the insider trading conviction of former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio on Wednesday and said he could be ordered to begin serving a 6-year prison sentence.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned the conviction last year, ruling that the trial judge improperly barred testimony from a defense witness.

But on a 5-4 vote, the full 10th Circuit said Wednesday the trial court was ”well within its discretion” to keep the witness off the stand.

Now, it’s likely that Nacchio will appeal to SCOTUS. Which means the Roberts Court will probably be refusing cert for Nacchio at about the time they overrule Vaughn Walker’s impending decision that retroactive immunity for telecoms–you know, the guys who broke the law when they cooperated with Dick Cheney’s illegal wiretap program?–is illegal. 

Developing Arguments about Classified Information in the al-Haramain Litigation

There have been a number of moves in the al-Haramain suit, some of which I’ll review in more detail when I get back to work in earnest in Monday. But for now, there are three details I wanted to point out that reflect changing ground with regards to classification in the suit, just as the government files an appeal.

The Dead-Enders Admit Walker Didn’t Order Them to Declassify the Wiretap Log

The first comes in this government request for more time to respond to Judge Walker’s order, filed on Friday. In it, the dead-enders reverse a claim they made in January. Yesterday, they said,

In its Order of January 5, 2009, the Court directed the Government Defendants to “review the Sealed Document and their classified submissions to date in this litigation and determine whether the Sealed Document and/or any of defendants’ classified submissions may be declassified, take all necessary steps to declassify those that they have determined may be declassified and, no later than forty-five (45) days from the date of this order, serve and file a report of the outcome of that review.”

They specifically say that the review includes the stuff at issue in this suit–primarily the wiretap log that shows that al-Haramain was wiretapped illegally.

The Government can report today, as we indicated in a filing made on February 11, 2009, that we expect the relevant information at issue in the privilege assertion to remain classified.

Funny. These same dead-enders claimed, on January 22, that Walker had ordered them to get security clearances for al-Haramain’s lawyers so they could have access to the wiretap log, suggesting Walker had already ordered that access.

Second, the Court has held that due process requires that, for plaintiffs’ counsel to litigate the case, they must obtain security clearances for access to certain classified information, including the heretofore Sealed Document, court orders and possibly the Government’s classified filings in this case. Both holdings raise serious questions of law and would subject the Government to irreparable harm. [my emphasis]

The January 22 claim was a total misrepresentation of Judge Walker’s order, so I’m not surprised that the dead-enders are now asserting that they have simply been ordered to do a review–and (with their assertion that the log remains classified) that they retain ability to determine whether the document is classified or not. But the dead-enders have backed off one of their more egregious claims.

Read more

Vaughn Walker: Okay Mr. Holder, I’d Like to See YOUR Work Now

Judge Vaughn Walker, who is preparing to rule on whether telecom retroactive immunity is constitutional, has given the parties a new homework assignment (h/t MD). He has asked for a brief addressing this question.

Nonetheless, section 802 appears to contain “literally no guidance for the exercise of discretion” by the Attorney General. Whitman v American Trucking Assns, 531 US 457, 474 (2001). It appears to leave the Attorney General free take no action at all or to take action to invoke section 802’s protection on behalf of one or more “persons” based on any consideration of his choosing; no charge or directive, timetable and/or criteria for the Attorney General’s exercise of discretion are apparent. The parties are directed to address whether section 802 runs afoul of the principle the Supreme Court set forth in Yakus v United States, 321 US 414,
425 (1944):

[T]he only concern of courts is to ascertain whether the will of Congress has been obeyed. This depends not upon the breadth of the definition of the facts or conditions which the administrative officer is to find but upon the determination whether the definition sufficiently marks the field within which the Administrator is to act so that it may be known whether he has kept within it in compliance with the legislative will.

Now, I invite the lawyers to correct me, but I think Walker, probably having taken a peek at that document he’ll one day review in the al-Haramain case which proves the Bush Administration was violaing FISA, is likely looking for clarification about what Congress meant when they said the Attorney General had to certify something as legal.

If Congress said the AG had to certify something as legal, he seems to be asking, is the AG doing the will of Congress is he says something is legal when it’s clearly not? Or, were they really asking the AG to make an assessment of the legality of the activity?

That’s my guess, anyway. 

But what I find particularly interesting is this part of the order:

In their supplemental briefs, the parties may paraphrase and/or refer to arguments made in previously-filed briefs, but should not repeat them verbatim.

I think that’s judge politesse for,

Say, Mr. AG, I’d really appreciate seeing some of your original lawyering work on this one, please. I’ve seen what the dead-enders want to give me, and I’m not really interested in seeing their stale arguments rehashed again. Unless, of course, you’re really willing to adopt their completely indefensible position as your own?

Ah. I’m probably reading too much into this. Read more

What Jane Mayer Tells Us about Warrantless Wiretapping

Jane Mayer’s excellent piece on Obama’s Executive Orders banning torture is about just that–the end of the torture regime. (Incidentally, kudos to Greg Craig, whom I beat up yesterday, for giving his first interview to Mayer.) But it offers some useful insight on a debate we’ve been having over the last couple of days–whether or not Obama could have intervened in the al-Haramain trial (and other pending litigation on warrantless wiretapping) in the same way he intervened in the pending habeas petitions.

First, off, Mayer confirms a point I made–that Obama was not about to take on the most politically charged legal decisions in his first day in office.

Moreover, Craig noted in his first White House interview that the reforms were not finished yet and that Obama had deliberately postponed several of the hardest legal questions. Craig said that, as he talked with the president before the signing ceremony, Obama was “very clear in his own mind about what he wanted to accomplish, and what he wanted to leave open for further consultation with experts.”

Obviously, one of those questions is how to approach legal consequences for those who ordered torture–or warrantless wiretapping. The EOs Obama signed last week don’t commit him to an approach on that score. Furthermore, he seems inclined to insulate himself from such decisions by putting them in the hands of Eric Holder, to make it a prosecutorial decision. Though Holder has intimated he’d hold both the architects of our torture regime and of our warrantless wiretapping responsible (lucky for him, he could do it all in a giant 2-for-1 deal), I’m not holding my breath on that score. But we won’t know what he’ll do until he becomes Attorney General.

That said, Mayer makes it clear just how much lobbying has gone into Obama’s evolving policy on torture.  She describes a meeting that must have taken place in December 2007 or January 2008 with a bunch of officers–including four star Generals–at which the officers lobbied Obama to end our torture regime. That high-level lobbying continued up until last month. Mayer specifically describes the role of retired Marine General Chuck Krulak who promised to "fly cover" for the Obama Administration after they pushed this through.

Who, might I ask, is doing similar lobbying to restore civil liberties for Americans?

Oh, I know there has been similar lobbying–on the part of civil liberties groups, high profile individuals, and DFH bloggers like you and me. Read more

al-Haramain: the Dead-Enders Misrepresent Their Appeal to Dismiss the Need to Wait for Obama

al-Haramain’s lawyer, like me, has some doubt whether or not the motion for appeal submitted on Monday and reaffirmed under Obama’s name on Thursday reflects the thinking of the Obama Administration.

Jon Eisenberg, the attorney for the two lawyers, suggested the litigation be put on hold to give the new Obama administration time to reconsider the legal posture it inherited from Bush.

"None of us knows whether or not they might take a different approach to this case," Eisenberg argued to Walker.

Neither [Anthony] Coppolino nor [Vaughn] Walker responded to that point.

And I’m guessing since Coppolino, who is purportedly speaking for the Obama Administration, didn’t immediately answer that question, he has some doubt, too. 

I suspect Walker has some doubt, too, as he has asked for more briefing, which will have the effect of delaying his response until such time as Eric Holder and Dawn Johnsen and David Kris have had time to fully review the documents behind the case and actually be read into this program.

On Friday, Walker instructed the government and Eisenberg to provide further written arguments within weeks about why he should or should not permit the government to appeal a case brought by two former lawyers for the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation.

And well he should demand more briefing. Because the dead-enders make a claim in the only document with Obama’s name on it–the case management statement initially submitted with Bush’s name on it and then re-submitted with Obama’s name on it–that completely misrepresents the scope and nature of their appeal.

The Dead-Enders Argue They’re Not Making a Unitary Executive Argument

In its own case statement, al-Haramain cites Eric Holder’s call for "a reckoning" for Bush having illegally authorized warrantless wiretap, and then cites Dawn Johnsen arguing that the "unitary executive" theory threatens "balance of powers and individual rights." Then, al-Haramain argues that these statements suggest the Obama Administration will adopt a different course with this case.

It would be a remarkable turnabout for the new Department of Justice, under the guidance of Mr. Holder and Ms. Johnsen, to refuse any declassification here and continue the effort to resist a decision on plaintiff’s standing and this Court’s ajudication of the Bush administration’s "unitary executive" and Commander-in-Chief" theiries.

Read more

The "Obama" Support for Stay Pending Appeal in al-Haramain

A number of you have emailed to ask about this report–that Obama has supported Bush’s request for a stay pending appeal in the al-Haramain case.

The Obama administration fell in line with the Bush administration Thursday when it urged a federal judge to set aside a ruling in a closely watched spy case weighing whether a U.S. president may bypass Congress and establish a program of eavesdropping on Americans without warrants.

In a filing in San Francisco federal court, President Barack Obama adopted the same position as his predecessor. With just hours left in office, President George W. Bush late Monday asked U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to stay enforcement of an important Jan. 5 ruling admitting key evidence into the case.

Thursday’s filing by the Obama administration marked the first time it officially lodged a court document in the lawsuit asking the courts to rule on the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s warrantless-eavesdropping program. The former president approved the wiretaps in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"The Government’s position remains that this case should be stayed," the Obama administration wrote (.pdf) in a filing that for the first time made clear the new president was on board with the Bush administration’s reasoning in this case.

On its face, this looks like really horrible news–a spineless attempt on Obama’s part to play along with Bush’s efforts to run out the clock on Bush’s alleged crimes in wiretapping al-Haramain and other Americans. And frankly, this should not be surprising news; Eric Holder said in his confirmation hearing that–unless he finds anything unexpected–he would continue the Bush Administration’s support for retroactive immunity, a case that is also before Judge Vaughn Walker. So it would be unsurprising that the Obama Administration would be cautious in this case as well.

That said, there is some confusion about the whole decision. Here’s the timeline:

January 16: Bush files appeal

January 19: Bush motions for stay pending appeal, informs Walker and al-Haramain of what it is doing

January 20: al Haramain responds, Obama becomes President

January 21: Specter places his one-week hold on Holder’s nomination

January 22:  The "Obama Administration" submits support of Bush motion 

January 23, 10:30 AM PST: Hearing scheduled

As al-Haramain complains in its response, the Bush Administration appears to have deliberately held their appeal until "64 minutes before midnight on the last day of the Bush presidency." Read more