<$BlogRSDUrl$>

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Big Free Pass 

The NYT has posted Part One of its mammoth article on how the executive branch unilaterally rewrote military law to order in the wake of 9/11. The process mirrored almost exactly the runup to the invasion of Iraq: the administration decided what it wanted to do, recruited a group of ideologues to draft a conceptual (if not quite a legal) justification for that end, excluded all dissenting voices from the discusion, and got on with the business at hand before anyone could object:
But three years later, not a single terrorist has been prosecuted. Of the roughly 560 men being held at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, only 4 have been formally charged. Preliminary hearings for those suspects brought such a barrage of procedural challenges and public criticism that verdicts could still be months away. And since a Supreme Court decision in June that gave the detainees the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court, the Pentagon has stepped up efforts to send home hundreds of men whom it once branded as dangerous terrorists.

"We've cleared whole forests of paper developing procedures for these tribunals, and no one has been tried yet," said Richard L. Shiffrin, who worked on the issue as the Pentagon's deputy general counsel for intelligence matters. "They just ended up in this Kafkaesque sort of purgatory."

The story of how Guantánamo and the new military justice system became an intractable legacy of Sept. 11 has been largely hidden from public view.

But extensive interviews with current and former officials and a review of confidential documents reveal that the legal strategy took shape as the ambition of a small core of conservative administration officials whose political influence and bureaucratic skill gave them remarkable power in the aftermath of the attacks.
You will not be surprised to learn whom the White House turned to when it wanted permission to shred the Constitution and violate international law:
The administration's claim of authority to set up military commissions, as the tribunals are formally known, was guided by a desire to strengthen executive power, officials said. Its legal approach, including the decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions, reflected the determination of some influential officials to halt what they viewed as the United States' reflexive submission to international law.

In devising the new system, many officials said they had Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda in mind. But in picking through the hundreds of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, military investigators have struggled to find more than a dozen they can tie directly to significant terrorist acts, officials said. While important Qaeda figures have been captured and held by the C.I.A., administration officials said they were reluctant to bring those prisoners before tribunals they still consider unreliable . . . .

The administration's legal approach to terrorism began to emerge in the first turbulent days after Sept. 11, as the officials in charge of key agencies exhorted their aides to confront Al Qaeda's threat with bold imagination.

"Legally, the watchword became 'forward-leaning,' '' said a former associate White House counsel, Bradford Berenson, "by which everybody meant: 'We want to be aggressive. We want to take risks.' ''

That challenge resounded among young lawyers who were settling into important posts at the White House, the Justice Department and other agencies. Many of them were members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal fraternity. Some had clerked for Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia in particular. A striking number had clerked for a prominent Reagan appointee,
Lawrence H. Silberman [see also here; Silberman, a key figure in the Anita Hill smear and the Bill Clinton witch hunt, had earlier overturned the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter in the Iran-Contra scandals -- S.] of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

One young lawyer recalled looking around the room during a meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft. "Of 10 people, 7 of us were former Silberman clerks," he said.

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Flanigan sought advice from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel on "the legality of the use of military force to prevent or deter terrorist activity inside the United States,'' according to a previously undisclosed department memorandum that was reviewed by The New York Times.

The 20-page response came from John C. Yoo, a 34-year-old Bush appointee with a glittering résumé and a reputation as perhaps the most intellectually aggressive among a small group of legal scholars who had challenged what they saw as the United States' excessive deference to international law. On Sept. 21, 2001, Mr. Yoo wrote that the question was how the Constitution's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure might apply if the military used "deadly force in a manner that endangered the lives of United States citizens."

Mr. Yoo listed an inventory of possible operations: shooting down a civilian airliner hijacked by terrorists; setting up military checkpoints inside an American city; employing surveillance methods more sophisticated than those available to law enforcement; or using military forces "to raid or attack dwellings where terrorists were thought to be, despite risks that third parties could be killed or injured by exchanges of fire."

Mr. Yoo noted that those actions could raise constitutional issues, but said that in the face of devastating terrorist attacks, "the government may be justified in taking measures which in less troubled conditions could be seen as infringements of individual liberties." If the president decided the threat justified deploying the military inside the country, he wrote, then "we think that the Fourth Amendment should be no more relevant than it would be in cases of invasion or insurrection."

With the White House in charge, officials said, the planning for tribunals moved forward more quickly, and more secretly. Whole agencies were left out of the discussion. So were most of the government's experts in military and international law.

The legal basis for the administration's approach was laid out on Nov. 6 in a confidential 35-page memorandum sent to Mr. Gonzales from Patrick F. Philbin, a deputy in the Legal Counsel's office. (Attorney General Ashcroft has refused recent Congressional requests for the document, but a copy was reviewed by The Times.)

The memorandum's plain legalese belied its bold assertions.

It said that the president, as commander in chief, has "inherent authority'' to establish military commissions without Congressional authorization. It concluded that the Sept. 11 attacks were "plainly sufficient" to warrant applying the laws of war.

Opening a debate that would later divide the administration, the memorandum also suggested that the White House could apply international law selectively. It stated specifically that trying terrorists under the laws of war "does not mean that terrorists will receive the protections of the Geneva Conventions or the rights that laws of war accord to lawful combatants."

The central legal precedent cited in the memorandum was a 1942 case in which the Supreme Court upheld President Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of a military commission to try eight Nazi saboteurs who had sneaked into the United States aboard submarines. Since that ruling, revolutions had taken place in both international and military law, with the adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951. Even so, the Justice memorandum said the 1942 ruling had "set a clear constitutional analysis" under which due process rights do not apply to military commissions.

The Gonzales memorandum suggested that the "new kind of war" Mr. Bush wanted to fight could hardly be reconciled with the "quaint" privileges that the Geneva Conventions gave to prisoners of war, or the "strict limitations" they imposed on interrogations.

Military lawyers disputed the idea that applying the conventions would necessarily limit interrogators to the name, rank and serial number of their captives. "There were very good reasons not to designate the detainees as prisoners of war, but the claim that they couldn't be interrogated was not one of them," Colonel Lietzau said. Again, though, such questions were scarcely heard, officials involved in the discussions said . . . .

If the Geneva Conventions debate raised Mr. Yoo's stature, it had the opposite effect on lawyers at the State Department, who were later excluded from sensitive discussions on matters like the interrogation of detainees, officials from several agencies said.

"State was cut out of a lot of this activity from February of 2002 on," one senior administration official said. "These were treaties that we were dealing with; they are meant to know about that."


| | Technorati Links | to Del.icio.us