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Context of 'March 9, 2009: Obama to Review Bush Signing Statements'

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Steven Calabresi joins the Justice Department. Calabresi is a young conservative lawyer who has clerked for appeals court Robert Bork, who failed to secure a position on the Supreme Court just months before (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Calabresi, a co-founder of the Federalist Society of conservative lawyers and judges, joins forces with another ambitious young Justice Department lawyer, John Harrison, and the two begin working to expand the power of the president. Calabresi and Harrison decide that an aggressive use of presidential signing statements can advance the president’s authority to the detriment of the legislative and judicial branches. Unfazed by a recent judicial rejection of just such signing statement usage (see 1984-1985), Calabresi and Harrison write a memo to Attorney General Edwin Meese advocating the issuing of more signing statements as part of a larger strategy to increase the president’s influence over the law. Calabresi and Harrison are interested in how what they call “activist judges” use the legislative history of a bill that became law to interpret that law’s meaning in subsequent judicial actions. The two lawyers believe that by issuing signing statements, the president can create a parallel record of presidential interpretations of potentially ambiguous laws to help guide judicial decisions. Meese approves of the idea, and in December has the West Publishing Company, which prints the US Code Congressional and Administration News, the standard collection of bills’ legislative history, begin including presidential signing statements in its publications. In 2007, author Charlie Savage will call Meese’s move “a major step in increasing the perceived legitimacy of the device.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 232] In 2007, Calabresi will say: “I initially thought of signing statements as presidential legislative history. I’ve subsequently come to think of them as being important vehicles by which presidents can control subordinates in the executive branch. They subsequently came to be important to the unitary executive [theory of presidential power].” [Savage, 2007, pp. 234]

Entity Tags: John Harrison, Charlie Savage, Federalist Society, West Publishing Company, US Department of Justice, Edwin Meese, Robert Bork, Steven Calabresi, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyer Samuel Alito, a member of the department’s Litigation Strategy Working Group, writes a memo advocating the creation of a pilot project designed to increase the frequency and impact of presidential signing statements (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985 and October 1985). The rationale is to use signing statements to “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” Alito focuses on the use of signing statements to parallel the legislative history of a bill, a relatively modest view, but still recognizes the potentially revolutionary nature of the idea. He writes that signing statements must be used incrementally, so as not to draw undue attention from civil libertarians and key Congressional members. “[D]ue to the novelty of the procedure and the potential increase of presidential power,” he writes, “[C]ongress is likely to resent the fact that the president will get the last word on questions of interpretation.” Alito suggests that President Reagan begin issuing signing statements only on bills affecting the Justice Department, and later issue such statements for bills that affect other areas of the federal government. “As an introductory step, our interpretative statements should be of moderate size and scope,” he writes. “Only relatively important questions should be addressed. We should concentrate on points of true ambiguity, rather than issuing interpretations that may seem to conflict with those of Congress. The first step will be to convince the courts that presidential signing statements are valuable interpretive tools.” President Reagan will issue signing statements that challenge, interpret, or actually rewrite 95 sections of bills, far more than any other president. His successor, George H. W. Bush, will challenge 232 sections of bills. [Savage, 2007, pp. 233-234]

Entity Tags: Litigation Strategy Working Group, George Herbert Walker Bush, Samuel Alito, US Department of Justice, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Edwin Meese.Edwin Meese. [Source: GQ (.com)]Attorney General Edwin Meese receives a report, “Separation of Powers: Legislative-Executive Relations.” Meese had commissioned the report from the Justice Department’s Domestic Policy Committee, an internal “think tank” staffed with hardline conservative scholars and policy advisers.
Recommendations for Restoring, Expanding Executive Power - The Meese report approvingly notes that “the strong leadership of President Reagan seems clearly to have ended the congressional resurgence of the 1970s.” It lays out recommendations for restoring the power taken from the executive branch after Watergate and Vietnam, and adding new powers besides. It recommends that the White House refuse to enforce laws and statutes that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch,” and for Reagan to veto more legislation and to use “signing statements” to state the White House’s position on newly passed laws. It also assails the 1972 War Powers Resolution and other laws that limit presidential power.
Reinterpreting the Separation of Powers and the Concept of 'Checks and Balances' - Perhaps most importantly, the Meese report claims that for 200 years, courts and scholars alike have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Founders’ intentions in positing the “separation of powers” system (see 1787 and 1793). The belief that the Constitution mandates three separate, co-equal branches of government—executive, judicial, and legislative—who wield overlapping areas of authority and work to keep each of the other branches from usurping too much power—a concept taught in school as “checks and balances”—is wrong, the report asserts. Instead, each branch has separate and independent sets of powers, and none of the three branches may tread or encroach on the others’ area of responsibility and authority. “The only ‘sharing of power’ is the sharing of the sum of all national government power,” the report claims. “But that is not joint shared, it is explicitly divided among the three branches.” According to the report, the White House should exercise total and unchallenged control of the executive branch, which, as reporter and author Charlie Savage will later explain, “could be conceived of as a unitary being with the president as its brain.” The concept of “checks and balances” is nothing more than an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to encroach on the rightful power of the executive. This theory of presidential function will soon be dubbed the “unitary executive theory,” a title adapted from a passage by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. [Savage, 2007, pp. 47-48] Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general during the second term, will later write that though the unitary executive theory displays “perfect logic” and a “beautiful symmetry,” it is difficult to defend, because it “is not literally compelled by the words of the Constitution. Nor did the framers’ intent compel this view.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 50]

Entity Tags: Charles Fried, Reagan administration, Domestic Policy Committee, US Department of Justice, Ronald Reagan, Edwin Meese, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Author Terry Eastland, the editor of Forbes Media Critic and a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, publishes Energy in the Executive: The Case for the Strong Presidency. The book makes an impassioned case for the “unitary executive” theory of the presidency (see April 30, 1986). In essence, Eastland’s argument is that a strong presidency, combined with a much diluted Congress and Supreme Court, is the best way for conservatives to achieve their aims. While traditional conservatives tend to reject this theory as unacceptably authoritarian, many others on the right—neoconservatives, social conservatives, the religious right, and other groups—have embraced the concept. Author and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call Eastland’s arguments “weak… deeply flawed as history and constitutional law, and closer to cheerleading for presidential hubris, excessive secrecy, and monarchical-like authority than a solid justification for a strong presidency.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 100-106]

Entity Tags: John Dean, Terry Eastland

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

According to reporter and author Charlie Savage, the White House staff quickly coalesces into two camps: “Bush People[,] mostly personal friends of the new president who shared his inexperience in Washington,” which includes President Bush’s top legal counsels, Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers, both corporate lawyers in Texas before joining Bush in Washington. The second group is “Cheney People—allies from [Vice-President Dick] Cheney’s earlier stints in the federal government (see May 25, 1975, November 18, 1980, 1981-1992, 1989, and June 1996) who were deeply versed in Washington-level issues, a familiarity that would allow their views to dominate internal meetings. These included [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and other cabinet secretaries, key deputies throughout the administration, and David Addington, Cheney’s longtime aide who would become a chief architect of the administration’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism” (see July 1, 1992 and (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Savage will observe, “Given the stark contrast in experience between Cheney and Bush, it was immediately clear to observers of all political stripes that Cheney would possess far more power than had any prior vice president.”
'Unprecedented' Influence - Cheney will certainly have “unprecedented” influence, according to neoconservative publisher William Kristol, who himself had served as former Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. “The question to ask about Cheney,” Kristol will write, is “will he be happy to be a very trusted executor of Bush’s policies—a confidant and counselor who suggests personnel and perhaps works on legislative strategy, but who really doesn’t try to change Bush’s mind about anything? Or will he actually, substantively try to shape administration policy in a few areas, in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise be going?”
Expanding the Power of the Presidency - Cheney will quickly answer that question, Savage will write, by attempting to “expand the power of the presidency.” Savage will continue: “He wanted to reduce the authority of Congress and the courts and to expand the ability of the commander in chief and his top advisers to govern with maximum flexibility and minimum oversight. He hoped to enlarge a zone of secrecy around the executive branch, to reduce the power of Congress to restrict presidential action, to undermine limits imposed by international treaties, to nominate judges who favored a stronger presidency, and to impose greater White House control over the permanent workings of government. And Cheney’s vision of expanded executive power was not limited to his and Bush’s own tenure in office. Rather, Cheney wanted to permanently alter the constitutional balance of American government, establishing powers that future presidents would be able to wield as well.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 7-9] Larry Wilkerson, the chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, will say after leaving the administration: “We used to say about both [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office] and the vice president’s office that they were going to win nine out of 10 battles, because they were ruthless, because they have a strategy, because they never, never deviate from that strategy. They make a decision, and they make it in secret, and they make it in a different way than the rest of the bureaucracy makes it, and then suddenly, foist it on the government—and the rest of the government is all confused.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 299]
Signing Statements to Reshape Legislation, Expand Presidential Power - To that end, Cheney ensures that all legislation is routed through his office for review before it reaches Bush’s desk. Addington goes through every bill for any new provisions that conceivably might infringe on the president’s power as Addington interprets it, and drafts signing statements for Bush to sign. In 2006, White House counsel Bradford Berenson will reflect: “Signing statements unite two of Addington’s passions. One is executive power. And the other is the inner alleyways of bureaucratic combat. It’s a way to advance executive power through those inner alleyways.… So he’s a vigorous advocate of signing statements and including important objections in signing statements. Most lawyers in the White House regard the bill review process as a tedious but necessary bureaucratic aspect of the job. Addington regarded it with relish. He would dive into a 200-page bill like it was a four-course meal.” It will not be long before White House and Justice Department lawyers begin vetting legislation themselves, with Addington’s views in mind. “You didn’t want to miss something,” says a then-lawyer in the White House. [Savage, 2007, pp. 236]

Entity Tags: David S. Addington, Bradford Berenson, Alberto R. Gonzales, Charlie Savage, William Kristol, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush administration (43), Harriet E. Miers, George W. Bush, Lawrence Wilkerson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration seizes the new opportunities to expand the power of the presidency that present themselves as part of the government’s response to the attacks (see (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The Bush-Cheney legal team, largely driven by Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff (see January 21, 2001), aggressively pushes for new opportunities to expand executive branch authorities.
'Bravado,' 'Close-Minded Group of Like-Minded People' - A senior White House official later tells author and reporter Charlie Savage of the “pervasive post-9/11 sense of masculine bravado and one-upmanship when it came to executive power.” In Savage’s words, and quoting the official, “a ‘closed group of like-minded people’ were almost in competition with one another, he said, to see who could offer the farthest-reaching claims of what a president could do. In contrast, those government lawyers who were perceived as less passionate about presidential power were derided as ‘soft’ and were often simply cut out of the process” (see also September 25, 2001).
Suspicion of Oversight - “The lawyers for the administration felt a tremendous amount of time pressure, and there was a lot of secrecy,” the official will say. “These things were being done in small groups. There was a great deal of suspicion of the people who normally act as a check inside the executive branch, such as the State Department, which had the reputation of being less aggressive on executive power. This process of faster, smaller groups fed on itself and built a dynamic of trying to show who was tougher on executive power.”
Addington and Yoo: Outsized Influence - While nominally the leaders of the White House legal team are Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, neither has as much influence as lawyers and staffers ostensibly of lower rank than themselves. Ashcroft is a vociferous supporter of the administration’s anti-terrorism policies, but is not a member of Bush’s inner circle and sometimes disagrees with the White House’s legal moves. Neither Ashcroft nor Gonzales have prior experience dealing with the legal issues surrounding executive power and national security. Two of the driving forces behind the White House’s push for more presidential power are Cheney’s chief counsel, David Addington, and an obscure deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), John Yoo. Because of a dispute between Ashcroft and the Bush inner circle over who should lead the OLC, there is no official chief of the OLC until November 2002, leaving Yoo and his fellows free to be as aggressive as they like on expanding presidential power and handling the war on terrorism. When the OLC chief, law professor Jay Bybee, finally arrives, he, like Ashcroft and Gonzales, finds himself hampered by his lack of knowledge of the law as it pertains to national security. Savage will later write, “When he finally started work, Bybee let deputies continue to spearhead the review of matters related to the war on terrorism.” Yoo is only a deputy assistant attorney general, but he has “signing power”—the ability to make his opinion legally binding—and is rarely reviewed by his peers because much of his work is classified. [Savage, 2007, pp. 76-78] As for Addington, Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, will later say that he was the leader of the small but highly influential group of lawyers “who had these incredible theories and would stand behind their principles [Cheney, Bush, and others], whispering in their ears about these theories, telling them they have these powers, that the Constitution backs these powers, that these powers are ‘inherent’ and blessed by God and if they are not exercised, the nation will fall. He’d never crack a smile. His intensity and emotions and passion for these theories are extraordinary.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 84]

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Lawrence Wilkerson, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage, David S. Addington, Jay S. Bybee, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John C. Yoo, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Vice President Cheney gives one of the first public indications that he and his office have a keen and active interest in expanding the power of the presidency (see January 21, 2001). Interviewed by ABC’s Cokie Roberts, Cheney openly discusses his interest in reversing the restraints placed on the presidency after Watergate and the Vietnam War. He calls the restraints “unwise compromises” that serve to “weaken the presidency and the vice presidency.” His job, he explains, is to reverse the “erosion of [presidential] powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job.” Cheney says he has laid out his case to President Bush, who agrees with his rationale and his agenda. “One of the things that I feel an obligation on—and I know the president does, too, because we talked about it—is to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 75-76]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Cokie Roberts

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law creating the Institute of Education Sciences, a subsidiary of the Department of Education. The new institute is designed to generate independent statistics about student performance. The law stipulates that the institute’s director may conduct and publish research “without the approval of the secretary [of education] or any other office of the department.” President Bush issues a signing statement indicating that contrary to the law, the director will be responsible to the secretary of education. Since the president has the power to control the actions of all executive branch officials, the statement asserts, “the director of the Institute of Education Sciences shall [be] subject to the supervision and direction of the secretary of education.” Bush’s signing statement directly contradicts the letter and the intent of Congress’s law. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 240]

Entity Tags: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law that states US officials in Iraq cannot prevent an inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority from carrying out any investigation. The inspector general will inform Congress if officials refuse to cooperate with his inquiries. President Bush issues a signing statement directly contradicting the law. According to Bush’s statement, the inspector general “shall refrain” from investigating anything involving sensitive plans, intelligence, national security, or anything already being investigated by the Pentagon. The inspector cannot tell Congress anything if the president decides that disclosing the information would impair foreign relations, national security, or executive branch operations. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: Coalition Provisional Authority, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush meets privately with acting Attorney General James Comey to discuss the Justice Department’s refusal to reauthorize the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see Late September, 2001). (Comey will later refuse to discuss the conversation during testimony before Congress.) After the meeting, Bush meets privately with FBI Director Robert Mueller, Comey’s partner in opposing the program (see March 10-12, 2004). After his meeting, Mueller tells Comey, “[W]e have the president’s direction to do what we believed, what the Justice Department believed was necessary to put this matter on a footing where we could certify its legality.” Author and reporter Charlie Savage will later write, “Comey, [Office of Legal Counsel chief Jack] Goldsmith, and their colleagues spent the next several weeks making a series of undisclosed changes to the warrantless surveillance program—during which time the original program continued to operate, even though the president had been told it was illegal.” Outside experts will later speculate that Comey and Goldsmith had constrained the program’s scope by imposing stricter controls on who can be monitored without a warrant. Some will decide that the program now monitors only communications specifically suspected to have a connection to al-Qaeda, not the more general “suspected terrorism” communications. They will also speculate that the authorization for the program now relies on Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001), not the president’s inherent authority as commander in chief. But, Savage will write, the program still allows wiretapping without a judge’s approval, and therefore is still illegal. [Savage, 2007, pp. 188]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, US Department of Justice, Robert S. Mueller III, James B. Comey Jr., Jack Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Rene Lerner, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), and Justice Department lawyer Adrien Silas send a memo to Assistant Attorney General William Moschella. The memo will remain classified, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will learn that it pertains to the so-called “McCain Amendment,” later known as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005). President Bush will sign the bill into law, but will include a signing statement that states the administration will not follow the law because it impinges on the president’s constitutional authority to conduct military operations (see December 30, 2005). It is unclear whether Bush’s signing statement is influenced by the memo. [ProPublica, 4/16/2009]

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, Adrien Silas, American Civil Liberties Union, US Department of Justice, Rene Lerner, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), George W. Bush, William E. Moschella

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Yaser Esam Hamdi.Yaser Esam Hamdi. [Source: Associated Press]In the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi v. Donald Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court rules 8-1 that, contrary to the government’s position, Hamdi (see December 2001), as a US citizen held inside the US, cannot be held indefinitely and incommunicado without an opportunity to challenge his detention. It rules he has the right to be given the opportunity to challenge the basis for his detention before an impartial court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes for the majority: “It would turn our system of checks and balances on its head to suggest that a citizen could not make his way to court with a challenge to the factual basis for his detention by his government, simply because the Executive opposes making available such a challenge. Absent suspension of the writ by Congress, a citizen detained as an enemy combatant is entitled to this process.” Hamdi, on the other hand, apart from military interrogations and “screening processes,” has received no process. Due process, according to a majority of the Court, “demands some system for a citizen detainee to refute his classification [as enemy combatant].” A “citizen-detainee… must receive notice of the factual basis for his classification, and a fair opportunity to rebut the government’s factual assertions before a neutral decision-maker.” However, O’Connor writes, “an interrogation by one’s captor… hardly constitutes a constitutionally adequate factfinding before a neutral decisionmaker.”
Conservative Dissent: President Has Inherent Power to Detain Citizens during War - Only Justice Clarence Thomas affirms the government’s opinion, writing, “This detention falls squarely within the federal government’s war powers, and we lack the expertise and capacity to second-guess that decision.” [Supreme Court opinion on writ of certiorari. Shafiq Rasul, et al. v. George W. Bush, et al., 6/28/2004] Thomas adds: “The Founders intended that the president have primary responsibility—along with the necessary power—to protect the national security and to conduct the nation’s foreign relations. They did so principally because the structural advantages of a unitary executive are essential in these domains.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 105]
'A State of War Is Not a Blank Check for the President' - The authority to hold Hamdi and other such US citizens captured on enemy battlefields derives from Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001). Justice Antonin Scalia dissents from this portion of the majority ruling, saying that because Congress had not suspended habeas corpus, Hamdi should either be charged with a crime or released. The Court also finds that if Hamdi was indeed a missionary and not a terrorist, as both he and his father claim, then he must be freed. While the Court does not grant Hamdi the right to a full criminal trial, it grants him the right to a hearing before a “neutral decision-maker” to challenge his detention. O’Connor writes: “It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in these times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.… We have long made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”
Affirms President's Right to Hold US Citizens Indefinitely - Although the media presents the ruling as an unmitigated defeat for the Bush administration, it is actually far more mixed. The White House is fairly pleased with the decision, insamuch as Hamdi still has no access to civilian courts; the administration decides that Hamdi’s “neutral decision-maker” will be a panel of military officers. Hamdi will not have a lawyer, nor will he have the right to see the evidence against him if it is classified. This is enough to satisfy the Court’s ruling, the White House decides. In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “[T]he administration’s legal team noted with quiet satisfaction that, so long as some kind of minimal hearing was involved, the Supreme Court had just signed off on giving presidents the wartime power to hold a US citizen without charges or a trial—forever.” The Justice Department says of the ruling that it is “pleased that the [Court] today upheld the authority of the president as commander in chief of the armed forces to detain enemy combatants, including US citizens.… This power, which was contested by lawyers representing individuals captured in the War on Terror, is one of the most essential authorities the US Constitution grants the president to defend America from our enemies.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 193-194]

Entity Tags: Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Donald Rumsfeld, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Clarence Thomas, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Congress passes an intelligence bill that requires the Justice Department to inform it as to how often and in what situation the FBI is using special “national security” wiretaps on US soil. The bill also requires the Justice Department to give oversight committees copies of administration memos outlining any new interpretations of domestic-spying laws. It contains 11 other sections mandating reports about such issues as civil liberties, security clearances, border security, and counternarcotics efforts. President Bush signs the bill, then issues a signing statement asserting his right to ignore or override every element of it. He can and will withhold information from Congress as he sees fit, he claims in the statement. [Savage, 2007, pp. 238-239]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law requiring the director of national intelligence (DNI) to recruit and train women and minorities to be spies, analysts, and translators in order to ensure diversity in the intelligence community. President Bush signs the bill, then issues a signing statement ordering the executive branch—including the DNI—to construe the law in a manner consistent with a constitutional clause guaranteeing “equal protection” for all: a legalistic phrasing designed to sidestep the law. Bush has long been an opponent of any sort of affirmative action program; as recently as 2003, the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration’s “equal protection” arguments and in favor of a race-conscious affirmative action program. In his signing statement, Bush advances the “equal protection” argument over affirmative action in spite of the Supreme Court’s rejection of that argument. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 240-241]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Office of the Director of National Intelligence, US Supreme Court, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law forbidding US troops in Colombia, who are there advising the government in its struggle against Marxist rebels funded by drug money, from engaging in any combat against the rebels except in self-defense. The law also caps the number of American soldiers deployed in Colombia at 800. President Bush issues a signing statement that only he, as the commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces. Therefore, the executive branch will construe the law “as advisory in nature.” [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US International Relations, Civil Liberties

Public administration specialist Philip Cooper determines that during his first term, George W. Bush issued over 500 objections to Congressional legislation that he signed into law. Almost all of his objections were codified in presidential “signing statements,” which have no legal weight per se but have been used by Bush and previous presidents to cite objections or exceptions to legislative provisions. Although the administration’s point man on signing statements is David Addington, Vice President Cheney’s legal adviser and chief of staff, most of the legal objections for the statements are sourced from the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget. 82 of Bush’s signing statements are based on the “unitary executive” theory of presidential power (see January 9-13, 2006), 77 relate to the administration’s perception of the president’s exclusive power over foreign policy, 48 to his power to withhold information required by Congress to protect national security, and 37 to his powers as commander in chief. [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116; Joyce Green, 2007]

Entity Tags: Philip Cooper, David S. Addington, Office of Management and Budget, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales turns in supplementary written answers to expand upon and clarify his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (see January 6, 2005 and January 6, 2005). Buried in the documents is what reporter Charlie Savage will call “an explosive new disclosure.” Gonzales reveals that the Bush administration had secretly decided that the Convention against Torture, an international treaty, only has force on domestic soil, where the US Constitution applies. Noncitizens held overseas have no rights under the treaty, Bush lawyers concluded. Legal scholars from all sides of the political continuum denounce the administration’s position. Judge Abraham Sofaer, who negotiated the treaty for the Reagan administration, will write a letter to Congress informing it that President Reagan had never intended the treaty’s prohibition on torture and brutal treatment to apply only on US soil. However, the Bush administration stands by its position. [Savage, 2007, pp. 213]

Entity Tags: Senate Judiciary Committee, Abraham Sofaer, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gathers a group of senior subordinates and warns them to stay away from three senators—John McCain (R-AZ), John Warner (R-VA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who are drafting a bill to govern the handling of terrorism suspects (see December 30, 2005). A Pentagon official with direct knowledge of the meeting will later recall, “Rumsfeld made clear, emphatically, that the vice president had the lead on this issue.” Though Vice President Dick Cheney has, as he so often has done in the past, ensured that his bureaucratic fingerprints are not on the issue, he has already staked out a hardline position for the White House. This time, it came as a last-minute insert in a July 2005 “statement of administration policy” by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where Nancy Dorn, Cheney’s former chief of legislative affairs, is deputy director. Cheney’s staff adds, without the required staff clearance, a paragraph to the OMB’s guidance for the 2006 defense appropriations bill (see July 21, 2005). Among those surprised by the position is Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who for a year has advocated that the US issue clear rules about detention and interrogation of terror suspects. England attempts to clarify the issue (see Late 2005). [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]

Entity Tags: John McCain, Bush administration (43), Donald Rumsfeld, Gordon England, Office of Management and Budget, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John W. Warner, Nancy Dorn, Lindsey Graham, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law that forbids the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and their contractors from firing or otherwise punishing any employee who informs Congress about possible wrongdoing. President Bush issues a signing statement that says only he or his appointees will decide whether employees of either agency can give information to Congress. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, US Department of Energy

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law requiring the Customs and Border Patrol to relocate its illegal immigrant checkpoints near Tucson, Arizona, every seven days in order to prevent smugglers from being able to avoid those checkpoints. President Bush signs the law, then issues a signing statement saying that the Border Patrol should view the “relocation provision as advisory rather than mandatory” because, in his view, only the president has the constitutional authority to decide how to deploy law enforcement officers. As a result of Bush’s signing statement, Border Patrol authorities disobey the law, and explain to investigators from the Government Accountability Office that the law is not mandatory, but “advisory.” White House spokesman Tony Fratto later says in response to the Border Patrol’s refusal to obey the law: “The signing statements certainly do and should have an impact. They are real.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 242-243; Boston Globe, 6/19/2007]

Entity Tags: US Customs and Border Protection, George W. Bush, Tony Fratto, Government Accountability Office

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush, stung by the opposition from both left and right that derailed his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court (see October 3-27, 2005), nominates appeals court judge Samuel Alito to the Court to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor. [Dean, 2007, pp. 155-157]
Staunch Advocate of Expanding Presidential Power - Alito has impeccable credentials, especially in contrast to the widely derided Miers. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, a long-time member of the conservative Federalist Society, and has years of decisions behind him as an appellate court judge. He is a product of the Reagan-era Justice Department. Bush calls him “one of the most accomplished and respected judges in America.” He is a powerful anti-abortion advocate, and a staunch supporter of granting ever more power to the executive branch, especially at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. During his time in the Reagan Justice Department, he worked on a project to “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” In 2000 he called the “unitary executive theory” (see April 30, 1986) the “gospel according to the OLC,” the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where he worked for four years, and said he was firmly committed to advancing that theory. [Savage, 2007, pp. 267-271]
Bland Facade at Hearings - Alito receives a unanimous “well qualified” assessment from the American Bar Association, and the Bush administration expects that his nomination will sail through the Senate confirmation hearings as quickly and painlessly as did Bush’s previous choice for the Court, John Roberts (see September 29, 2005). The hearings are more contentious than Bush would like, and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will say in 2007 that Alito’s performance before the Judiciary Committee “only served to confirm that the entire process has become little more than a great charade.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), one of the longest-serving members of the committee, observes that the Bush administration believes—correctly—that it can nominate radical right-wing extremists to the Court virtually at will, “as long as their views were not well known,” and adds, “[T]he current White House [has] turned the effort to hide nominees’ views into an art form.” Like Roberts, Alito presents a bland, non-confrontational facade to the committee (see January 9-13, 2006), refusing to take a personal stance on any issue and giving the impression that, as Kennedy will say after Alito and Roberts begin their service on the Court, he would be “as neutral as a baseball umpire.… The men who promised to be neutral umpires look more and more like loyal members of the president’s team.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 155-157]
Party-Line Confirmation - After an attempt by Senators Kennedy and John Kerry (D-MA) to filibuster Alito’s confirmation fails, the Senate confirms Alito’s ascension to the Court by a near-party line 58-42 vote, the closest such vote since Clarence Thomas’s (see October 13, 1991). Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) condemns what he calls the “very bitter partisanship” over Alito’s nomination, and accuses Democrats of playing politics: “When you have a man who has the decency, the legal ability and the capacities that Judge Alito has treated this way, I think it’s despicable.” Alito, whose hardline conservative beliefs are sufficiently masked during the hearings, replaces the far more moderate O’Connor, who before her retirement made up the “moderate center” of the Court with Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter. Now Alito joins Thomas, Roberts, and Antonin Scalia to form a hard-right conservative bloc on the Court which, when joined by center-right conservative Kennedy, forms a nearly unshakable conservative majority. [CNN, 2/1/2006]
Overturning Roe? - Many believe that Alito gives the Court the fifth vote it needs to finally overturn the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade (see January 22, 1973), a longtime goal of social conservatives that would go far to make abortions illegal in the US. [Slate, 10/31/2005]

Entity Tags: Orrin Hatch, Sandra Day O’Connor, Samuel Alito, John Dean, US Supreme Court, John G. Roberts, Jr, John Kerry, George W. Bush, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Harriet E. Miers, Antonin Scalia

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Army adopts a new, classified set of interrogation methods that some feel may change the nature of the debate over cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees in US custody. The Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 30, 2005), which bases its definition of torture in part on Army standards, is currently wending its way through Congress. The new set of instructions are being added to the revised Army Field Manual, after they are approved by undersecretary of defense Stephen Cambone. The addendum provides exact details on what kinds of interrogation procedures can and cannot be used, and under what circumstances, pushing the legal limit of what interrogations can be used in ways that the Army has never done before. Some military observers believe that the new guidelines are an attempt by the Army to undercut the DTA, and many believe the bill’s sponsor, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) will be unhappy with the addendum. “This is a stick in McCain’s eye,” one official says. “It goes right up to the edge. He’s not going to be comfortable with this.” McCain has not yet been briefed on the contents of the new guidelines. McCain spokesman Mark Salter says, “This is politically obtuse and damaging. The Pentagon hasn’t done one molecule of political due diligence on this.” One Army officer says that the core of the definition of torture—what is and is not “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” treatment—“is at the crux of the problem, but we’ve never defined that.” The new Army Field Manual specifically prohibits such tactics as stress positioning, stripping prisoners, imposing dietary restrictions, using police dogs to intimidate prisoners, and sleep deprivation. The new manual is expected to be issued before the end of the year. [New York Times, 12/14/2005] The day after this is reported, President Bush agrees not to veto the DTA (see December 15, 2005).

Entity Tags: Stephen A. Cambone, Detainee Treatment Act, US Department of Defense, John McCain, US Department of the Army

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

The Bush administration relents in its opposition to the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), which would ban torture of prisoners by US personnel (see July 24, 2005 and After and December 30, 2005). President Bush meets with the bill’s primary sponsor, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, in a press conference to praise the bill. McCain says after the conference that the bill “is a done deal.” The bill still faces some opposition from Congressional Republicans such as House Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who says he won’t vote for the bill unless it can be amended to ensure that the nation’s ability to gather intelligence is not diminished. Both the House and Senate have voted by veto-proof margins to accept the bill, which is actually an amendment to a defense appropriations bill. McCain says after the conference with Bush and Warner, “We’ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists. We have no grief for them, but what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are.” Bush says the ban “is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.” McCain has been the target of months of vilification and opposition from the White House over the bill, which argued that the bill would limit Bush’s authority to protect the US from terrorist attacks, and that the bill is unnecessary because US officials do not torture. [CNN, 12/15/2005]
Loopholes - But the bill contains key loopholes that some experts believe significantly waters down the bill’s impact. Author Alfred McCoy, an expert on the CIA, notes that the bill as revised by White House officials does not give any real specifics. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will assert that the only restrictions on prisoner interrogations are the ban on “severe” psychological or physical pain, “the same linguistic legerdemain that had allowed the administration to start torturing back in 2002” (see August 1, 2002). Gonzales also implies that practices such as waterboarding are not prohibited. [TomDispatch (.com), 2/8/2006]
Legal Cover - A provision of the bill inserted after negotiation with White House officials says that CIA and military officials accused of torture can claim legal protection by arguing that they were simply following the orders of their superiors, or they have a reasonable belief that they are carrying out their superiors’ wishes. McCain dropped the original provision that all military personnel must follow the stringent guidelines for interrogation laid out in the Army Field Manual; the bill now follows the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which says that anyone accused of violating interrogation rules can defend themselves if a “reasonable” person could conclude they were following a lawful order. McCain resisted pressure from the White House to include language that would afford interrogators accused of torture protection from civil or criminal lawsuits. [CNN, 12/15/2005; Associated Press, 12/15/2005]
Controversial Amendment - Perhaps even more troubling is an amendment to the bill that would essentially strip the judiciary’s ability to enforce the ban. The amendment, originally crafted by senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and added to by Carl Levin (D-MI), denies Guantanamo detainees the right to bring legal action against US personnel who torture or abuse them—effectively denying them the fundamental legal right of habeas corpus. It also gives the Defense Department the implicit ability to consider evidence obtained through torture or inhumane treatment in assessing detainees’ status. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that the DTA marks the first time in history that Congress would allow the use of evidence obtained through torture. HRW’s Tom Malinowski says, “With the McCain amendment, Congress has clearly said that anyone who authorizes or engages in cruel techniques like water boarding is violating the law. But the Graham-Levin amendment leaves Guantanamo detainees no legal recourse if they are, in fact, tortured or mistreated. The treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees will be shrouded in secrecy, placing detainees at risk for future abuse.… If the McCain law demonstrates to the world that the United States really opposes torture, the Graham-Levin amendment risks telling the world the opposite.” [Human Rights Watch, 12/16/2005] Geoffrey Corn, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Judge Advocate General lawyer, agrees. In January 2006, he will write that the “recent compromise inclusion of an ‘obedience to orders’ defense… has effectively undermined the goal Senator John McCain fought so long to achieve. Instead of sending a clear message to US forces that cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of detainees is never permissible, the compromise has validated President Bush’s belief that the necessities of war provide the ultimate ‘trump card’ to justify ‘whatever it takes’ in the war on terror.” [Jurist, 1/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Tom Malinowski, Lindsey Graham, US Department of Defense, Jon Kyl, Uniform Code of Military Justice, John McCain, John W. Warner, Geoffrey Corn, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Alfred McCoy, Carl Levin, Detainee Treatment Act, Central Intelligence Agency, Human Rights Watch, Duncan Hunter

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Without the knowledge of many in Congress, Vice President Cheney and his allies in Congress manage to insert language into the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 30, 2005) that renders much of the bill nearly worthless. Some of the widest exceptions are inserted without the knowledge of all but a very few Congressmen. One is the exemption for the CIA, which instead of being bound by the interrogation techniques described in the US Army Field Manual, is only forbidden in general to employ “cruel” or “inhuman” methods. Those terms will be defined in light of US constitutional law. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision that cruelty is an act that “shocks the conscience,” Cheney’s chief lawyer, David Addington, has argued that harsh interrogations would be much less shocking if performed on detainees suspected of planning or taking part in mass casualty terrorist attacks. What “shocks the conscience” is to an extent “in the eye of the beholder,” Cheney has already said. [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Central Intelligence Agency, Detainee Treatment Act, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

After months of opposition and a recent, clandestine rewriting of the bill (see Before December 30, 2005), President Bush signs the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) into law, effectively outlawing torture by government and military officials (see December 15, 2005). However, Bush also inserts a signing statement into the record reserving for himself the right to ignore the law under his powers as commander in chief if he judges that torturing a prisoner is in the interest of national security (see December 30, 2005). Signing statements have no legal status, but serve to inform the nation as to how the president interprets a particular law. In this case, Bush writes that he will waive the restrictions on torture if he feels it is necessary to protect national security. “We consider ourselves bound by the prohibition on cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment,” says a senior administration official, but under unusual circumstances—a “ticking time bomb” scenario, for example, where a detainee is believed to have information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack, Bush’s responsibility to protect the nation will supersede the law. Law professor David Golove is critical of the White House’s position, saying: “The signing statement is saying ‘I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it’s important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me.’ They don’t want to come out and say it directly because it doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s unmistakable to anyone who has been following what’s going on.” Bush has issued numerous signing statements signaling his intent to flaunt the law in the areas of domestic surveillance, detaining terrorist suspects without due legal process, and previous legislation forbidding the torture of prisoners. Many legal and civil rights organizations believe that Bush’s signing statement is part of his push for a “unitary executive,” where the president has virtually unlimited powers in the areas of foreign policy and national security, and neither Congress nor the courts have the right to limit his powers (see April 30, 1986). Former Justice Department official and law professor Marty Lederman says: “The whole point of the McCain Amendment was to close every loophole. The president has re-opened the loophole by asserting the constitutional authority to act in violation of the statute where it would assist in the war on terrorism.” Human Rights Watch director Elisa Massamino calls the signing statement an “in-your-face affront” to both McCain and to Congress. “The basic civics lesson that there are three co-equal branches of government that provide checks and balances on each other is being fundamentally rejected by this executive branch. Congress is trying to flex its muscle to provide those checks [on detainee abuse], and it’s being told through the signing statement that it’s impotent. It’s quite a radical view.” [Boston Globe, 1/4/2006; Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Detainee Treatment Act, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman, Bush administration (43), David Golove, Elisa Massamino

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman, a former Justice Department official under both the Bush and Clinton administrations, notes the recent signing statement from the White House that essentially states President Bush will ignore the newly authorized Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005). “So much for the president’s assent to the McCain Amendment” (see December 15, 2005), Lederman writes. Of Bush’s signing statement itself, he writes: “Translation: I reserve the constitutional right to waterboard when it will ‘assist’ in protecting the American people from terrorist attacks.… You didn’t think [Vice President] Cheney and [Cheney’s chief of staff David] Addington (see December 30, 2005) were going to go down quietly, did you?” [Marty Lederman, 1/2/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 225]

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

The three Republican senators who co-sponsored the recently passed Detainee Treatment Act prohibiting torture (see December 15, 2005) criticize President Bush for his signing statement indicating that he would not follow the law if he sees fit (see December 30, 2005). Senators John McCain (R-AZ), the primary sponsor of the bill, and John Warner (R-VA) issue a statement rejecting Bush’s signing statement. “We believe the president understands Congress’s intent in passing, by very large majorities, legislation governing the treatment of detainees,” the senators write. “The Congress declined when asked by administration officials to include a presidential waiver of the restrictions included in our legislation. Our committee intends through strict oversight to monitor the administration’s implementation of the new law.” The third co-sponsor, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), says he agrees with the letter, “and would go a little bit further.” Graham says: “I do not believe that any political figure in the country has the ability to set aside any… law of armed conflict that we have adopted or treaties that we have ratified. If we go down that road, it will cause great problems for our troops in future conflicts because [nothing] is to prevent other nations’ leaders from doing the same.” The White House refuses to respond to the senators’ comments. Law professor David Golove, a specialist in executive power issues, says the senators’ statements “mean that the battle lines are drawn” for an escalating fight over the balance of power between the two branches of government. “The president is pointing to his commander in chief power, claiming that it somehow gives him the power to dispense with the law when he’s conducting war,” Golove says. “The senators are saying: ‘Wait a minute, we’ve gone over this. This is a law Congress has passed by very large margins, and you are compelled and bound to comply with it.’” Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First says the senators’ statements should warn military and CIA interrogators that they could be subject to prosecution if they torture or abuse a detainee, regardless of Bush’s signing statement. “That power [to override the law] was explicitly sought by the White House, and it was considered and rejected by the Congress,” she says. “And any US official who relies on legal advice from a government lawyer saying there is a presidential override of a law passed by Congress does so at their peril. Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment is illegal.” Golove notes that it is highly unlikely that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would prosecute anyone for performing actions Bush had authorized. [Boston Globe, 1/5/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 225-226]

Entity Tags: David Golove, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, John W. Warner, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Elisa Massimino

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

During the Senate hearings to confirm conservative jurist Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the questioning turns to Alito’s views on the “unitary executive” theory (January 1, 1992). The theory seems to have originated in the Reagan administration’s Justice Department (see April 30, 1986), where Alito worked in the Office of Legal Counsel.
Lawyer Testifies to Unitary Executive - Former Clinton White House counsel Beth Nolan testifies about the theory and its potential for dramatically revamping the power of the presidency: “‘Unitary executive’ is a small phrase with almost limitless import. At the very least, it embodies the concept of presidential control over all executive functions, including those that have traditionally been executed by ‘independent’ agencies and other actors not subject to the president’s direct control.… The phrase is also used to embrace expansive interpretations of the president’s substantive powers, and strong limits on the legislative and judicial branches.” Nolan cites a November 2000 speech by Alito to the Federalist Society, where Alito said in part, “the president is largely impervious to statutory law in the areas of foreign affairs, national security, and Congress is effectively powerless to act as a constraint against presidential aggrandizement in these areas.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 100-106] During the questioning session, Alito denies ever discussing the idea of inherent presidential powers during that speech.
Evasive Answers in Hearings - Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) says in his opening statement that he intends to press Alito on his support for what Durbin calls “a marginal theory at best… yet one you’ve said you believe.” Durbin notes that the Bush administration has repeatedly cited the theory to justify its most controversial policies and decisions, particularly in conducting its war on terror. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) adds: “The president is not a king, free to take any action he chooses without limitation, by law.… In the area of executive power, Judge Alito, you have embraced and endorsed the theory of the unitary executive. Your deferential and absolutist view of separation of powers raises questions. Under this view, in times of war the president would, for instance, seem to have inherent authority to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, to ignore Congressional acts at will, or to take any other action he saw fit under his inherent powers. We need to know, when a president goes too far, will you be a check on his power or will you issue him a blank check to exercise whatever power alone he thinks appropriate?” [Savage, 2007, pp. 271-272] However, Alito refuses to address the issue in the hearings, giving what one journalist calls “either confused or less than candid” answers to questions concerning the subject.
Failure to Recall - During questioning, Alito turns aside inquiries about his avowed support for the unitary executive theory, saying he was merely talking about the idea that a president should have control over lesser executive branch officials, and was not referring to the usurpation of Congressional power by the executive. Further questions elicit nothing but a dry definition of the term. Asked about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s stinging dissent in the 2004 Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case (see June 28, 2004), where Thomas wrote that the authors of the Constitution believed a unitary executive was essential to the implementation of US foreign policies, Alito says he does not recall Thomas’s mention of the phrase. Asked about Bush’s signing statement that attempted to invalidate the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005), Alito merely recites the definition of a signing statement, and refuses to actually state his position on the issue (see February 6, 1986 and After). Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), disturbed by Alito’s refusal to address the subject, says he will vote against him in part because of Alito’s embrace of “the gospel of the unitary executive.” Kennedy cites one of the authors of the theory, law professor Steven Calabresi, one of the founders of the Federalist Society, who, Kennedy says, “acknowledged that, if the concept is implemented, it would produce a radical change in how the government operates.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 100-106; Savage, 2007, pp. 271-274]
ACLU Opposes Alito - The ACLU, for only the third time in its history, formally opposes Alito’s nomination, in part because of Alito’s embrace of the unitary executive theory of the presidency, citing Alito’s “expansive view of executive authority and a limited view of the judicial role in curbing abuses of that authority.” In its 86-year history, the ACLU has only opposed two other Court nominees: William Rehnquist and former Solicitor General Robert Bork. [American Civil Liberties Union, 1/9/2006]
Opposition Fails - However, none of this is effective. Alito is sworn in less than a month later, after Democrats in the Senate fail to successfully mount a filibuster against his confirmation. [CNN, 2/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Samuel Alito, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Beth Nolan, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), US Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In his column for the legal website FindLaw, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes: “Rather than veto laws passed by Congress, [George W.] Bush is using his signing statements to effectively nullify them as they relate to the executive branch. These statements, for him, function as directives to executive branch departments and agencies as to how they are to implement the relevant law.… Bush has quietly been using these statements to bolster presidential powers. It is a calculated, systematic scheme that has gone largely unnoticed.… It is as if no law had been passed on the matter at all.… Bush is using signing statements like line item vetoes.” Dean writes that Bush’s signing statement for the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005) marks the first time that serious media attention has been focused on the statements. He writes, “Despite the McCain Amendment’s clear anti-torture stance, the military may feel free to use torture anyway, based on the President’s attempt to use a signing statement to wholly undercut the bill.” [FindLaw, 1/13/2006]

Entity Tags: John Dean, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Al Gore speaks to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society.Al Gore speaks to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society. [Source: American Constitution Society]Former Vice President Al Gore delivers a long, impassioned speech on civil liberties and constitutional issues to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society. Gore joins former Representative Bob Barr (R-GA) in speaking out against the Bush administration’s infringement on American civil liberties. Gore and Barr have what Gore calls a “shared concern that America’s Constitution is in grave danger.”
Patently Illegal Domestic Surveillance - Gore’s speech is sparked by recent revelations that the NSA has been spying on American citizens for years (see December 15, 2005), and in response, the administration “has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress precisely to prevent such abuses.” As the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) is perfectly sufficient, there was no need for the Bush administration to circumvent that law. “At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA’s domestic surveillance,” Gore says. “What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently. A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government.” Gore says he agrees with Bush on the threat of terrorism, but disagrees that the US has to “break the law or sacrifice our system of government” to protect itself, as this will make it “weaker and more vulnerable.” In addition, he says, “once violated, the rule of law is itself in danger,” and, “Unless stopped, lawlessness grows, the greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles.” It is patently obvious that the Bush administration has broken the law in conducting and approving its warrantless wiretaps, Gore says, regardless of what arguments and defenses administration officials may put forth (see September 12-18, 2001 and Early 2002). So, Gore says, “When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him the power he wanted when this measure was passed, he secretly assumed that power anyway, as if Congressional authorization was a useless bother. But as [Supreme Court] Justice [Felix] Frankfurter once wrote, ‘To find authority so explicitly withheld is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between the president and the Congress.‘… And the disrespect embodied in these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political parties.”
Illegal Seizure of American Citizens - Gore notes that Bush has declared that he has “a heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our nation, and that notwithstanding his American citizenship that person in prison has no right to talk with a lawyer, even if he wants to argue that the president or his appointees have made a mistake and imprisoned the wrong person” (see November 13, 2001 and March 5, 2002). He says: “The president claims that he can imprison that American citizen—any American citizen he chooses—indefinitely, for the rest of his life, without even an arrest warrant, without notifying them of what charges have been filed against them, without even informing their families that they have been imprisoned.” Gore then says: “No such right exists in the America that you and I know and love. It is foreign to our Constitution. It must be rejected.”
Specious Authority to Torture - Neither does the executive branch have the right to authorize torture, Gore says. After citing horrific examples from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, he calls it “a shameful exercise of power that overturns a set of principles that you’re nation has observed since General George Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War. They have been observed by every president since then until now. They violate the Geneva Conventions, the International Convention Against Torture, and our own laws against torture.”
Unlawful Kidnapping of Foreign Citizens - The president has no right to have foreign citizens kidnapped from their homes and brought to the US for interrogation and imprisonment, or worse, delivered to other nations for harsh interrogations and torture, says Gore. The closest allies of the US have been shocked by such claims.
No Restraint in the Constitution? - Gore asks whether the president really has such powers under the Constitution and, if so, “are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited?” He quotes the dean of Yale’s law school, Harold Koh, who said, “If the president has commander in chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.” Gore is “deeply troubl[ed]” that “our normal American safeguards have thus far failed to contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power.” He cites the numerous usage of “signing statements” by Bush that signal his intent “not to comply” with particular legislation (see December 30, 2005). When the Supreme Court struck down Bush’s indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” (see June 28, 2004), “the president then engaged in legal maneuvers designed to prevent the court from providing any meaningful content to the rights of the citizens affected.”
Historical Cycles - Since the founding of America, Gore says, the country has abrogated its citizens’ rights in one circumstance or another, and cites numerous examples. But those abrogations were always rectified to some degree in a repeated cycle of what he calls “excess and regret.” Gore is worried that the country may not be in such a cycle now. Instead, he says, the US may be on a path to permanent, state-sanctioned authoritarianism, with the constitutional safeguards American citizens have come to expect eroded and undermined to the point of irretrievability. Gore specifically cites the administration’s support for the so-called “unitary executive” theory of government, which he says “ought to be more accurately described as the unilateral executive.” That theory “threatens to expand the president’s powers until the contours of the Constitution that the framers actually gave us become obliterated beyond all recognition.”
Stark Authoritarianism - Why are Bush and his top officials doing this? Gore says that “[t]he common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control. The same pattern has characterized the effort to silence dissenting views within the executive branch, to censor information that may be inconsistent with its stated ideological goals, and to demand conformity from all executive branch employees.” Gore continues: “Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time. The only check on it is that, sooner or later, a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. Two thousand two hundred American soldiers have lost their lives as this false belief bumped into a solid reality.”
Gutting Congress - Though serious damage has been done to the judicial branch, Gore acknowledges, “the most serious damage in our constitutional framework has been to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of Congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the executive to attain this massive expansion of its power.… [T]he legislative branch of government as a whole, under its current leadership, now operates as if it were entirely subservient to the executive branch.… [T]he whole process is largely controlled by the incumbent president and his political organization” (see February 1, 2004). Gore says each member of Congress, Republican and Democrat, must “uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of American government that you are supposed to be under the Constitution of our country.”
We the People - The American people still, for the moment, have the power to enforce the Constitution, Gore says, quoting former President Dwight Eisenhower, who said, “Any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.” Gore continues: “Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction.… The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the full Bill of Rights. Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of nuclear missiles ready to be launched on a moment’s notice to completely annihilate the country?” [Congressional Quarterly, 1/16/2006; American Constitutional Society, 1/16/2006]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Liberty Coalition, US Supreme Court, Harold Koh, George W. Bush, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., American Constitution Society, Bush administration (43), Convention Against Torture, Felix Frankfurter, George Washington, Geneva Conventions, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Robert “Bob” Barr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Speaking to a cheering crowd of military families in Kansas, President Bush declares that he has no intention of following the laws requiring warrants for wiretaps (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005) because Congress authorized the use of military force against terrorists (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001), and because he has the power to bypass laws at his own discretion in the interest of national security. The Kansas appearance is part of an election-style “blitz” of appearances around the country designed to build support for the warrantless wiretapping program, and to bolster support for Republicans in the midterm elections (see January 20, 2006). “I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you what [the AUMF] means,” he says. “It means Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people but it didn’t prescribe the tactics.… If [terrorism suspects] are making phone calls into the United States, we need to know why, to protect you.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 203]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush says that the recently passed Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005) has no loopholes that would allow US interrogators to torture prisoners. “No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world,” he says (see December 30, 2005 and January 2, 2006). [Ireland Online, 1/26/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Detainee Treatment Act

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) file an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006) saying that because of the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005), the Court no longer has jurisdiction over the case. Graham and Kyl argue their point by citing the “legislative history” of the DTA, in particular the official statements Graham and Kyl made during debate over the bill, and specifically an “extensive colloquy” between the two that appears in the Congressional Record for December 21, 2005. Graham and Kyl argue that this “colloquy,” which argues that Guantanamo prisoners have no rights under the standard of habeas corpus, stands as evidence that “Congress was aware” that the DTA would strip the Court of jurisdiction over cases that involve Guantanamo detainees. (The Senate included an amendment written by Graham, Kyl, and Carl Levin (D-MI) to the DTA that would reject habeas claims in future court cases, but does not apply retroactively to cases already filed, such as Hamdan.) However, Graham and Kyl never engaged in such a discussion on the floor of the Senate. Instead, they had the text inserted in the Record just before the law passed (see December 30, 2005), meaning that no one in Congress heard their discussion. The brief indicates that the discussion happened during the debate over the bill when it did not. The Record indicates that the discussion that did take place concerning the Hamdan case comes from Democrats, and explicitly state that the DTA has no bearing on the case. C-SPAN video coverage of the debate proves that Graham and Kyl never made those statements, and Senate officials confirm that the discussion was inserted later into the Record. But in their brief, Graham and Kyl state that “the Congressional Record is presumed to reflect live debate except when the statements therein are followed by a bullet… or are underlined.” The Record shows no such formatting, therefore, says the brief, it must have been live. The debate between Graham and Kyl is even written to make it appear as if it had taken place live, with Graham and Kyl answering each other’s questions, Kyl noting that he is nearing the end of his allotted time, and another senator, Sam Brownback (R-KS) apparently attempting to interject a question. Lawyers for the prosecution will strenuously object to the brief, and Justice Department defense lawyers will use the brief as a centerpiece for their argument that the Supreme Court should throw the case out. [US Supreme Court, 2/2006 pdf file; Slate, 3/27/2006; FindLaw, 7/5/2006] Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call the brief “a blatant scam,” and will accuse Graham and Kyl of “misle[ading] their Senate colleagues, but also sham[ing] their high offices by trying to deliberately mislead the US Supreme Court.… I have not seen so blatant a ploy, or abuse of power, since Nixon’s reign.… [Graham and Kyl] brazenly attempted to hoodwink the Court regarding the actions of Congress in adopting the DTA.” [FindLaw, 7/5/2006] Their efforts will not be successful, as the Supreme Court will ultimately rule against the Republican position in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006).

Entity Tags: John Dean, Detainee Treatment Act, US Department of Justice, US Supreme Court, Samuel Brownback, Jon Kyl, Lindsey Graham, Carl Levin

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Steven Calabresi, one of the architects of the ‘unitary executive’ theory, says Bush’s use of signing statements has gone too far.Steven Calabresi, one of the architects of the ‘unitary executive’ theory, says Bush’s use of signing statements has gone too far. [Source: MeFeedia]Legal scholars and constitutional experts decry President Bush’s claim that he can ignore or disobey laws with impunity. An examination by Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage finds that to date, Bush has claimed the authority to disobey over 750 laws enacted since he took office (see January 20, 2001 and After, After September 11, 2001, January 27, 2002, November 5, 2002, March 12, 2004 and After, November 6, 2003, December 2004, December 17, 2004, Dec. 23, 2004, January 17, 2005, August 8, 2005, October 18, 2005, December 30, 2005, and January 23, 2006). He claims that as president, he has the power to override any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. While the Constitution assigns Congress the power to write the laws and the president the duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” Bush asserts that he has no mandate to “execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional. Administration spokespersons have repeatedly said that Bush “will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution,” but it is Bush who decides what is and is not constitutional. Many legal scholars disagree with Bush’s position, and accuse him of attempting to usurp Congressional power for himself.
Philip Cooper - Law professor Phillip Cooper says over the Bush administration’s tenure, it has relentlessly worked to concentrate ever more governmental power into the White House. “There is no question that this administration has been involved in a very carefully thought-out, systematic process of expanding presidential power at the expense of the other branches of government,” Cooper says. “This is really big, very expansive, and very significant.”
Christopher Kelley - Political science professor Christopher Kelley notes that Bush uses signing statements to abrogate Congressional powers in a manner inconsistent with Constitutional mandates. “He agrees to a compromise with members of Congress, and all of them are there for a public bill-signing ceremony, but then he takes back those compromises—and more often than not, without the Congress or the press or the public knowing what has happened,” Kelley says.
David Golove - Law professor David Golove says Bush has besmirched “the whole idea that there is a rule of law” because no one can be certain of which laws Bush thinks are valid and which he thinks he can ignore. “Where you have a president who is willing to declare vast quantities of the legislation that is passed during his term unconstitutional, it implies that he also thinks a very significant amount of the other laws that were already on the books before he became president are also unconstitutional,” Golove says. To the extent that Bush is interpreting the Constitution in defiance of Supreme Court rulings, Golove notes, he threatens to “overturn the existing structures of constitutional law.” When a president ignores the Court and is not restrained by a Congress that enables his usurpations, Golove says, the Constitution can be made to simply “disappear.” Golove adds, “Bush has essentially said that ‘We’re the executive branch and we’re going to carry this law out as we please, and if Congress wants to impeach us, go ahead and try it.’”
Jack Beerman - Law professor Jack Beermann says: “The president is daring Congress to act against his positions, and they’re not taking action because they don’t want to appear to be too critical of the president, given that their own fortunes are tied to his because they are all Republicans. Oversight gets much reduced in a situation where the president and Congress are controlled by the same party.”
Steven Calabresi - Former Justice Department official Steven Calabresi, who came up with the idea of using signing statements to counter Congressional powers during the Reagan administration (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985), now says, “I think what the administration has done in issuing no vetoes and scores of signing statements (see September 2007) is not the right way to approach this.”
Bruce Fein - Former Reagan Justice Department official Bruce Fein says: “This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy. There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn’t doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.” [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 243]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage, Christopher Kelley, Jack Beermann, Bruce Fein, David Golove, George W. Bush, Phillip Cooper, Steven Calabresi

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Board of Governors of the American Bar Association (ABA) votes unanimously to investigate whether President Bush has exceeded his presidential authority by using signing statements to assert that he can ignore or override laws passed by Congress (see April 30, 2006 and September 2007). ABA president Michael Greco, who served with former Republican govenor William Weld (R-MA), appoints a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel of legal experts, including former government officials, legal scholars, and retired FBI Director William Sessions, to carry out the inquiry. The ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine will work for two months on a report (see July 23, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 244-245]

Entity Tags: Michael Greco, ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine, American Bar Association, George W. Bush, William Weld, William S. Sessions

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The American Bar Association (ABA)‘s Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine issues its final report for its investigation into whether President Bush has exceeded his presidential authority by using signing statements to assert that he can ignore or override laws passed by Congress (see June 4, 2006).
Bush Violating the Constitution - The report concludes that Bush is violating the Constitution by signing a bill and then issuing a signing statement declaring that he will refuse to obey selected sections of that bill. The president’s own belief that a particular provision of a law is unconstitutional carries no legal weight, and gives him no right to ignore or disobey that provision, the task force finds. The Constitution gives presidents only two options: veto a bill, or sign it and enforce it. “The president’s constitutional duty is to enforce laws he has signed into being, unless and until they are held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” the report reads. “The Constitution is not what the president says it is.”
De Facto Line-Item Veto - Signing statements as used by Bush and earlier presidents (see 1984-1985, August 23, 1985 - December 1985, October 1985, February 6, 1986 and After, and November 1993) are evolving into a kind of back-door line-item veto, which the Constitution does not grant presidents—especially when Congress cannot override it. “A line-item veto is not a constitutionally permissible alternative,” the report reads, “even when the president believes that some provisions of a bill are unconstitutional. A president could easily contrive a constitutional excuse to decline enforcement of any law he deplored, and transform his qualified veto into a monarch-like absolute veto.”
Bringing the Presidency Back into Alignment - Over 150 newspaper editorial boards, columnists, and cartoonists quickly endorse the ABA’s call to end the abuse of signing statements. Some critics of the ABA report say that, in attempting to avoid singling out Bush for criticism, the task force failed to address the root issue behind the signing statements—the unitary executive theory espoused by the administration (see April 30, 1986). Instead of asking that signing statements themselves be ended, some critics say, the Bush administration’s attempts to usurp other branches’ power for the presidency must be curbed. Law professor Laurence Tribe calls the Bush administration “pathological power holders” and “misfits” who are abusing a valid presidential tool. Task force member Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman, says the fundamental issue is to bring the presidency back into proper alignment with the other two branches. “It’s not about Bush, it’s about what should be the responsibility of a president,” he says. “We are saying that the president of the United States has an obligation to follow the Constitution and exercise only the authority the Constitution gives him. That’s a central tenet of American conservatism—to constrain the centralization of power.” [American Bar Association, 7/23/2006 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 245-247]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine, Bush administration (43), Mickey Edwards, Laurence Tribe, American Bar Association

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush has abused his prerogative to issue “signing statements” that state the White House’s interpretion of Congressionally passed laws (see Early 2005), according to former White House counsel John Dean and constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe.
History - Signing statements have no weight in law, but presidents have traditionally used them to state their belief that a particular legislative provision is unconstitutional, and on rare occasion (before the current president) to state their refusal to enforce that provision. Since Jimmy Carter’s administration, various Justice Department officials have said presidents can refuse to enforce a particular provision of signed, legally binding legislation. [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116] A group of young conservative lawyers in the Reagan administration decided that signing statements were a powerful, and stealthy, way to expand presidential power.
Dean: Bush's Use of Signing Statements 'Extraordinary' - However, Dean says that Bush has used signing statements far more extensively than any president before him. Dean notes that, while presidential signing statements themselves are not illegal or inherently wrong, “[i]t is Bush’s abuse of them that is extraordinary.” Dean writes there has been no concerted effort to find out if Bush is just saying he will not comply with the inordinate number of legislative provisions he has objected to, or if he is refusing to comply with them in practice. If the latter is the case, Dean writes, “he should be impeached immediately… because it would be an extraordinary breach of his oath” of office.
Tribe: Bush's Signing Statements 'Bizarre,' 'Reckless' - Dean cites Tribe, who said in 2006, “[W]hat is new and distressing [about Bush’s use of signing statements] is the bizarre, frighteningly self-serving, and constitutionally reckless character of those views—and the suspicion that the president either intends actually to act on them with some regularity, often in a manner that won’t be publicly visible at the time, or intends them as declarations of hegemony and contempt for the coordinate branches—declarations that he hopes will gradually come to be accepted in the constitutional culture as descriptions of the legal and political landscape properly conceived and as precedents for later action either by his own or by future administrations.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116; Joyce Green, 2007] Political science professor Christopher Kelley agrees. Kelley, who studied the Bush administration’s use of signing statements, says: “What we haven’t seen until this administration is the sheer number of objections that are being raised on every bill passed through the White House. That is what is staggering. The numbers are well out of the norm from any previous administration.”
Signing Statements Supplanting Vetoes - In another disturbing trend, according to author and reporter Charlie Savage, Bush is using signing statements to supplant the traditional presidential veto. By mid-2007, Bush had vetoed just two bills. In contrast, Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, vetoed 37 bills. George H. W. Bush vetoed 44, and Ronald Reagan vetoed 78. Legal experts studying Bush’s signing statements conclude that Bush and his legal team are using signing statements to function almost as line-item vetoes, a power the president does not have. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the Founding Fathers wanted the president to either accept a Congressional bill or reject it entirely, and if Congress overrode the veto, then the president had no other recourse than to follow the new law. But now, Savage writes, “the Bush-Cheney administration had figured out that if a president signed a bill and then instructed the government to consider selected provisions null (see December 30, 2005), he could accomplish much the same thing. Moreover, it was an absolute power because, unlike when there is a regular veto, Congress had no opportunity to override his legal judgments.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 230-231]

Entity Tags: Laurence Tribe, John Dean, US Department of Justice, George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Christopher Kelley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In a blistering editorial, the New York Times lambasts both the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership in the Senate for allowing Michael Mukasey, the new attorney general, to slide through the confirmation process with so little challenge (see November 8, 2007). The only thing left in the Senate’s traditional responsibility of “advice and consent” is the “consent” part, the editors write. The editorial continues: “Once upon a time, the confirmation of major presidential appointments played out on several levels—starting, of course, with politics. It was assumed that a president would choose like-minded people as cabinet members and for other jobs requiring Senate approval. There was a presumption that he should be allowed his choices, all other things being equal. Before George W. Bush’s presidency, those other things actually counted. Was the nominee truly qualified, with a professional background worthy of the job? Would he discharge his duties fairly and honorably, upholding his oath to protect the Constitution? Even though [he or] she answers to the president, would the nominee represent all Americans? Would he or she respect the power of Congress to supervise the executive branch, and the power of the courts to enforce the rule of law? In less than seven years, Mr. Bush has managed to boil that list down to its least common denominator: the president should get his choices.” The Times observes that in the first six years of Bush’s rule, he had an enthusiastically compliant set of Republican allies in Congress, but during that time, minority Democrats “did almost nothing… to demand better nominees than Mr. Bush was sending up. And now that they have attained the majority, they are not doing any better.” The editors focus particularly on two issues: Mukasey’s refusal to answer straightforward questions on whether waterboarding is torture, and the Democrats’ refusal to filibuster the Senate vote. The Times notes that Mukasey passed confirmation with a 53-40 vote. Democrats have made what the Times calls “excuses for their sorry record” on a host of issues, and first and foremost is the justification that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. “So why did Mr. Mukasey get by with only 53 votes?” the Times asks. “Given the success the Republicans have had in blocking action when the Democrats cannot muster 60 votes, the main culprit appears to be the Democratic leadership, which seems uninterested in or incapable of standing up to Mr. Bush.” The editors do not accept the rationale of Mukasey supporters like Charles Schumer (D-NY), who argued that by not confirming Mukasey, the path would be clear for Bush to make an interim appointment of someone far more extreme. The Times calls this line of argument “cozy rationalization,” and by Mukasey’s refusal to answer questions about his position on waterboarding, he has already aligned himself with the extremist wing of the administration. For the record, the Times notes, “Waterboarding is specifically banned by the Army Field Manual, and it is plainly illegal under the federal Anti-Torture Act, federal assault statutes, the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005), the Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994), and the Geneva Conventions.” Therefore, “[i]t is hard to see how any nominee worthy of the position of attorney general could fail to answer ‘yes.’” The Times speculates that Mukasey was not permitted to answer the question by the White House because a “no” answer “might subject federal officials who carried out Mr. Bush’s orders to abuse and torture prisoners after the 9/11 attacks: the right answer could have exposed them to criminal sanctions.” All in all, the Times is appalled by “the Senate giving the job of attorney general, chief law enforcement officer in the world’s oldest democracy, to a man who does not even have the integrity to take a stand against torture.” [New York Times, 11/11/2007]

Entity Tags: Michael Mukasey, New York Times, Geneva Conventions, Bush administration (43), Charles Schumer, George W. Bush, Convention Against Torture, Detainee Treatment Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) replies to a letter from the Justice Department that claims the CIA’s detainee interrogation program is fully compliant with the Geneva Conventions and with US and international law (see September 27, 2007). Wyden challenges the legal rationale for the claims, noting that the cases cited do not directly apply to the question of whether the definitions of “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” can vary depending on the identity of the detainee and the circumstances surrounding his interrogation. He also challenges the Justice Department’s rather narrow interpretation of the protections afforded by the Eighth Amendment and the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005). [US Senate, 3/6/2008 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, US Department of Justice, Ron Wyden, Geneva Conventions

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive Republican nominee for president, urges President Bush to veto an upcoming bill prohibiting waterboarding and other extreme methods of interrogation after himself voting against the bill. The bill passes the Senate on a largely partisan 51-45 vote. It has already passed the House on a similar party-line vote, and Bush has already announced his intention to veto the bill. McCain has won a reputation as an advocate of prisoner rights and a staunch opponent of torture; his five-year stint as a POW in North Vietnam is well-known. But McCain voted against the legislation when it came up for a vote in the Senate, and he opposes the bill now. McCain says he is opposed to waterboarding, but does not want the CIA restricted to following the practices outlined in the US Army Field Manual, as the legislation would require. McCain says: “I knew I would be criticized for it. I think I can show my record is clear. I said there should be additional techniques allowed to other agencies of government as long as they were not” torture. “I was on the record as saying that they could use additional techniques as long as they were not cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. So the vote was in keeping with my clear record of saying that they could have additional techniques, but those techniques could not violate” international rules against torture. McCain has said he believes waterboarding is already prohibited by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (see December 30, 2005). And CIA director Michael Hayden has said that current law may well prohibit waterboarding; he claims to have stopped CIA agents from waterboarding detainees in 2006, and also claims that the technique was not used later than 2003. McCain’s Senate colleague, Charles Schumer (D-NY) says that if Bush vetoes the bill, then he in essence “will be voting in favor of waterboarding.” [New York Times, 2/13/2008; Associated Press, 2/21/2008] Bush will indeed veto the bill (see March 8, 2008).

Entity Tags: Detainee Treatment Act, George W. Bush, John McCain, Michael Hayden, Central Intelligence Agency, Charles Schumer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

President Barack Obama orders a review of former President Bush’s signing statements. Bush often used signing statements to instruct administration officials how to implement, or to ignore, Congressional legislation and other laws (see Early 2005, January 13, 2006, and September 2007). Obama has sent memos to numerous federal agencies directing them to review Bush’s signing statements. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says that other presidents have used signing statements to note potential problems and conflicts, and says Obama will continue that practice. But, Gibbs says, Obama will not use signing statements to disregard Congress’s intent in its legislation. [Associated Press, 3/9/2009]

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Robert Gibbs, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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