Thursday, May 17, 2007

New questions about NSA spying

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified before the Senate's Judiciary committee this week that the President broke the law in relation to authorising the mass NSA wiretapping surveillance of US citizens. Glenn Greenwald thinks this raises new questions. He's not pulling his punches:

The testimony yesterday from James Comey re-focuses attention on one of the long unresolved mysteries of the NSA scandal. And the new information Comey revealed, though not answering that question decisively, suggests some deeply troubling answers. Most of all, yesterday's hearing underscores how unresolved the entire NSA matter is -- how little we know (but ought to know) about what actually happened and how little accountability there has been for some of the most severe and blatant acts of presidential lawbreaking in the country's history."

Comey testified as follows:

(i) that he, OLC and the AG concluded that the NSA program was not legally defensible, i.e., that it violated FISA and that the Article II argument OLC had previously approved was not an adequate justification (a conclusion prompted by the New AAG, Jack Goldsmith, having undertaken a systematic review of OLC's previous legal opinions regarding the Commander in Chief's powers);

(ii) that the White House nevertheless continued with the program anyway, despite DOJ's judgment that it was unlawful;

(iii) that Comey, Ashcroft, the head of the FBI (Robert Mueller) and several other DOJ officials therefore threatened to resign;

(iv) that the White House accordingly -- one day later -- asked DOJ to figure out a way the program could be changed to bring it into compliance with the law (presumably on the AUMF authorizaton theory); and

(v) that OLC thereafter did develop proposed amendments to the program over the subsequent two or three weeks, which were eventually implemented.

The program continued in the interim, even after DOJ concluded that it was unlawful.

Note that Comey homself was the Acting AG at the time, with Ashcroft being in the hospital for surgery. As the New York Times previously reported, and as Comey recounted today in remarkably dramatic detail -- set out below -- the White House (Andy Card and Judge Gonzales) actually attempted to have Ashcroft overrule Comey even though Ashcroft was ailing and not wielding the powers of the AG at the time. According to Comey today: "I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."

Most importantly: Can anyone think of any historical examples where the Department of Justice told the White House that a course of conduct would be unlawful (in this case, a felony), and the President went ahead and did it anyway, without overruling DOJ's legal conclusion?"

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