Saturday, May 19, 2007

The President's Secret Program: A Timeline

A TPM Reader provides us with the timeline.

We’re starting to see a timeline emerge on the confrontation between the White House and Justice on domestic spying.

The first date to mark on your calendar, I think, is October 3, 2003. That’s when the Senate confirms Jack L. Goldsmith as the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. In June, with Goldsmith’s nomination before the senate, John Yoo had left his job as the deputy at OLC to return to his teaching gig at Boalt.

Fast forward to December 11, 2003, when Comey is confirmed as Deputy Attorney General. He immediately assumes a more aggessive posture than his predecessor, Larry Thompson. The Times reports this morning that “with Mr. Comey’s backing, Mr. Goldsmith questioned what he considered shaky legal reasoning in several crucial opinions, including some drafted by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo.”

But that was just the beginning. Thompson had not been authorized access to the details of the NSA program. But, reports the NYTimes, “Comey was eventually authorized to take part in the program and to review intelligence
material that grew out of it” (1/1/06). He set Goldsmith to the task of sorting through the program’s dubious legality. Goldsmith’s “review of legal memoranda on the N.S.A. program and interrogation practices became a source of friction between Mr. Comey and the White House,” the Times reports today. And we know from Comey’s testimony that by “the White House,” we mean, principally, Dick Cheney and David Addington.

Up until this moment, Ashcroft had been signing off on the program every 45 days. That means his signature was last required in late January, shortly after Comey assumed his post, and perhaps even before he’d been authorized access to the program. Suddenly, the March 11 date comes into clearer focus. For the first time, trained and qualified attorneys within the Justice Department had conducted a careful review of the program. Comey took the evidence he had gathered to Ashcroft, as he testified on Tuesday: “A week before that March 11th deadline, I had a private meeting with the attorney general for an hour, just the two of us, and I laid out for him what we had learned and what our analysis was in this particular matter.” By the end of that meeting, Ashcroft and Comey had “agreed on a course of action,” to wit, that they “would not certify the program as to its legality.”

Thereupon follows the late-night drama that’s already been exhaustively chronicled. I’d simply note that one of the people in that hospital room was Goldsmith. On March 11, the President made the determination that the program was appropriate and lawful, and reauthorized it without Justice signing off.

On the morning of March 12, the president, faced with open revolt, backed down. The Times reported on what happened next last year: “The White House suspended parts of the program for several months and moved ahead with more stringent requirements on the security agency on how the program was used, in part to guard against abuses. The concerns within the Justice Department appear to have led, at least in part, to the decision to suspend and revamp the program, officials said. The Justice Department then oversaw a secret audit of the surveillance program” (01/01/06). Comey’s testimony refines that a little. He claims that it was a matter of weeks before the program was brought into compliance.

There’s a sad coda to this story. On June 17, 2004, Goldsmith announced his resignation after scarcely a year on the job.

What to make of this long narrative?

Simply this. The warantless wiretap surveillance program stank. For two and a half years, Ashcroft signed off on the program every forty-five days without any real knowledge of what it entailed. In his defense, the advisors who were supposed to review such things on his behalf were denied access; to his everlasting shame, he did not press hard enough to have that corrected.

When Comey came on board, he insisted on being granted access, and had Goldsmith review the program. What they found was so repugnant to any notion of constitutional liberties that even Ashcroft, once briefed, was willing to resign rather than sign off again.

So what were they fighting over? Who knows. But there’s certainly evidence to suggest that the underlying issue was was whether constitutional or statutory protections of civil liberties ought to be binding on the president in a time of war. The entire fight, in other words, was driven by the expansive notion of executive power embraced by Cheney and Addington. And here's the kicker - it certainly sounds as if the program was fairly easily adjusted to comply with the law. It wasn't illegal because it had to be; it was illegal because the White House believed itself above the law.

PS: There’s hope we’ll find out what was really going on. I’d highlight this portion of Specter’s remarks from the hearing: “Mr. Comey, it's my hope that we will have a closed session with you to pursue the substance of this matter further. Because your standing up to them is very important, but it's also very important what you found on the legal issue on this unnamed subject, which I infer was the terrorist surveillance program. And you're not going to comment about it. I think you could. I think you could even tell us what the legalisms were. Doesn't involve a matter of your advice or what the president told you, et cetera. But I'm going to discuss it with Senator Leahy later and see about pursuing that question to try to find out about it.”

And then Leahy, in response: “We will have a closed-door hearing on this. Senator Specter and I are about to have a briefing on aspects of this.” Can’t wait to hear what leaks out of that.

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