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National Security: Shady Surveillance

Last month's dramatic testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey has prompted renewed attention and focus on the administration's warrantless domestic spying efforts.

JUNE 8, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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NATIONAL SECURITY

Shady Surveillance

Last month’s dramatic testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey has prompted renewed attention and focus on the administration’s warrantless domestic spying efforts. Describing the shocking lengths that the White House went to in order to gain legal sanction for its surveillance program, Comey revealed that President Bush called then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s wife to seek permission for former chief of staff Andrew Card and then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to visit a debilitated and hospitalized Ashcroft at his bedside. The White House orchestrated the hospital visit in March 2004, one day after a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Comey in which Justice Department officials announced their staunch opposition to certifying the program. Cheney tried to skirt Comey’s authority by seeking Ashcroft’s approval, but Ashcroft demurred as well. The White House then reauthorized the spying program “without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality,” prompting at least eight top Justice officials to threaten their resignation. Bush finally backed down, altering the program in order to get the Justice Department’s sign-off. The saga over the White House’s trevails to get legal approval underscores the serious questions that surround the program — questions that remain largely unresolved to this day.

ALBERTO GONZALES’ DISSEMBLING: Testifying before Congress in Jan. 2006, Gonzales claimed, “There has not been any serious disagreement about the program that the president has confirmed.” In light of Comey’s dramatic retelling of a showdown that almost led to a mass resignation at the Justice Department in 2004, Gonzales’s claim appears extremely difficult to square with the facts. Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Peter Swire explained that there are two possibilities that stem from the differing accounts. Either Comey and Gonzales were referring to the same program, in which case Gonzales lied under oath about the legal disagreements that surrounded the spying program, or Comey’s objections applied to a different domestic wiretapping program, suggesting that the administration’s spying efforts are broader than the public has been made aware. Gonzales appeared to resolve this dilemma, stating this week that he and Comey were referring to the same program. “Comey’s testimony related to a highly classified program which the president confirmed to the American people sometime ago,” he said. If Gonzales is now telling the truth, that can only mean he failed to tell the truth in 2006.

SHOWDOWN OVER DOCUMENTS: In order to better understand the legal nature of the administration’s warrantless spying program, Jameel Jaffer, a national security analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, urged Congress yesterday to subpoena documents relating to the program, including court orders and opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Members of a House Judiciary subcommittee yesterday threatened to issue such subpoenas after Steven Bradbury, a principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel, told the panel that the department would not turn over the documents because of their confidential nature. The New York Times writes that the confrontation over the documents “could set the stage for a constitutional showdown over the separation of powers.” With respect to the separation of powers issue, Bradbury famously remarked in July 2006 during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that “the president is always right.” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) refused to back down over the committee’s request for documents. “This committee created the FISA statute and the FISA court, yet the President believes we are not entitled to know what he or the court are doing.” Nadler continued, “Many have begun to conclude that the shroud of secrecy thrown over these activities has less to do with protecting us from terrorism and more to do with protecting the Administration from having its lawbreaking exposed.”

SHROUD OF SECRECY: Citing a policy announced by Bush in Jan. 2007, Bradbury said yesterday that the warrantless wiretapping program hasn’t been reauthorized for “several months,” and “any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the program is now subject to the approval” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But Bradbury’s comments contradict Bush’s explanation of his own policy. In January, Bush said, “Nothing has changed in the program except the court has said we’ve analyzed it and it’s a legitimate way to protect the country.” While details of the administration’s actions remain “sketchy,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said earlier this year, “[The administration’s action] is not acceptable to me… simply because I can’t trust what they say.” Indeed, Bush has lost the public’s trust. Prior to the revelation of the NSA spying program, Bush had assured the public in 2004 that “a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed.” Bruce Fein, a legal veteran of the Reagan Justice Department, said that the administration’s shroud of secrecy suggests they have more to hide. “Delphic remarks by the attorney general and other Bush Administration officials indicate that other foreign intelligence spying programs are ongoing and generally unknown by either the Congress or the American people,” Fein said.

UNDER THE RADAR

IRAQ — SEN. REED CALLS FOR HADLEY TO BE FIRED: According to President Bush, incoming war czar Army Lt. Gen. Doug Lute “will be the full-time manager for the implementation and execution of our strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan.” During his confirmation hearing yesterday, Lute clarified that his new authority means that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s portfolio will no longer include Iraq and Afghanistan. Shocked by the revelation, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) argued Hadley should be fired if he’s taken a hands-off approach to the most important national security issues: “[F]rankly, Afghanistan, Iraq, … Iran, are the most critical foreign policy problems we face. And the national security adviser to the United States has taken his hands off that?” When Lute answered, “Sir, that’s the design, yes,” Reed responded, “Well, then [Hadley] should be fired, because, frankly, if he’s not capable of being the individual responsible for those duties and they pass it on to someone else, then why is he there?” After a short recess, Lute returned with a prepared statement — likely communicated to him by the White House — in which he backpedaled from his earlier claim that Hadley is now irrelevant on Iraq and Afghanistan. Hadley’s “role is not diminished by this appointment,” Lute clarified. It is unclear is exactly how Hadley and Lute are to share responsibility. Previously, Lute has rebuked Hadley’s often inaccurate statements about the war in Iraq. For example, Hadley has falsely claimed that Iraq is not in a civil war, that the Iraq Study Group supported Bush’s escalation, and defended Vice President Cheney’s claim that the insurgency was in its “last throes.” Lute, however, has suggested that “reduction in force structure would undercut insurgent propaganda,” warned against fostering a “dependency syndrome” in which “Iraqis would be content to stand by and watch if the Americans continued providing for their security,” and stated yesterday that there is “no evidence” to suggest that debating timelines for redeployment from Iraq “undercuts” U.S. troop morale.

SCIENCE — BUSH PROMISES VETO OF EMBRYONIC STEM CELL RESEARCH LEGISLATION: Nearly six years after President Bush placed punitive restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted 247-176 to relax those limits. “The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would allow federal funds, the financial lifeblood of scientists and laboratories, to flow to embryonic stem cell research.” Last month, the Senate passed similar legislation funding the research. Despite 60 percent of Americans and strong majorities of Congress approving embryonic stem cell research, Bush “threatened within minutes of final congressional passage” of the stem cell legislation to veto the bill for a second time. Recycling his old talking points, Bush stated, “If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Crossing that line would be a grave mistake. For that reason, I will veto the bill passed today.” “That drew a call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a ‘drumbeat across America’ to persuade Bush to change his mind.” Ironically, Bush’s concern for the “ethics” of stem cell research was contrasted by the actions of his very own conservative base yesterday. While conservatives claim they are against human cloning, they blocked passage of a The Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2007, a bill that would have made it illegal to clone a human being.

IMMIGRATION — REPORT DEBUNKS MYTH THAT IMMIGRANTS ABUSE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM:  Yesterday, Center for American Progress health research analyst Meredith King released a report debunking the five most prevalent “myths about documented and undocumented immigrants’ use of U.S. health care,” disproving arguments voiced by many immigration opponents this week that undocumented immigrants abuse the U.S. health care system and are partially to blame for spiraling health care costs. CNN anchor and anti-immigration zealot Lou Dobbs has alleged that “[u]ndocumented immigrants have a free ride on the backs of legal, lawful immigrants and American citizens.” Rep. Tom Tancedo (R-CO) recently said that “the cost of health care is exacerbated by the fact that we are providing health care to millions of people who came here illegally and access our health care system for free. You pay. They get it.” But the American Progress report shows that “immigrants will pay on average $80,000 per capita more in taxes than they will use in government services over their lifetimes.” In fact, King notes that “workers without valid social security numbers contribute $7 billion in Social Security tax revenues and roughly $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes annually,” while native-born citizens account for “twenty-one percent of total medical costs…compared to 16 percent for documented and undocumented immigrants.” Moreover, contrary to popular belief, immigrants rarely use — much less abuse — emergency room services, as “fewer than 10 percent of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who had been in the United States for fewer than 10 years reported using an emergency room, compared to 20 percent of native-born whites and Mexican Americans.” The report demonstrates that “job opportunities across the country are the ‘magnet’ that draws immigrants to the country; not federal incentives such as health care coverage and services.”

CIVIL RIGHTS — BUSH NOMINEE RESPONSIBLE FOR ‘MODERN-DAY POLL TAX’ FACES SCRUTINY: On Wednesday, June 13, the Senate Rules Committee will hold a hearing to confirm four nominees for six-year terms on the Federal Election Commission (FEC). One of those nominees, Hans A. von Spakovsky, is drawing resistance from voting rights activists, campaign finance watchdogs, and former officials in the Justice Department’s voting rights section. Spakovsky, whom President Bush temporarily placed on the FEC using a recess appointment, is said to have “used every opportunity he had over four years in the Justice Department to make it difficult for voters — poor, minority and Democratic — to go to the polls.” “He has devoted much of his legal career to suppressing minority voting rights, and he should not be rewarded with a six-year appointment to the Federal Election Commission,” said J. Gerald Herbet, a former chief of the Justice Department’s voting section who now serves as the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “I think that Hans von Spakovsky’s record demonstrates that he will use his office to elevate partisan concerns among legitimate law enforcement concerns,” he added. During his tenure as a political appointee in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Spakovsky overruled the recommendations of career attorneys and approved a controversial voter ID law in Georgia, which a federal judge later likened to a “modern-day poll tax.”  Upon his initial nomination, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) said he was “extremely troubled” because von Spakovsky “may be at the heart of the political interference that is undermining the [Justice] Department’s enforcement of federal civil laws.”

THINK FAST

“Drought, a fixture in much of the West for nearly a decade, now covers more than one-third of the continental USA. And it’s spreading,” USA Today reports. “As summer starts, half the nation is either abnormally dry or in outright drought from prolonged lack of rain that could lead to water shortages.”

G-8 countries backed down yesterday from their strong global warming stance, instead embracing President Bush’s proposal to move toward unspecified “substantial cuts” in carbon emissions. The “agreement says the G-8 countries will ‘seriously’ consider cutting emissions in half by 2050, but it sets no mandatory goals for all.”

“Senior House Democrats threatened Thursday to issue subpoenas to obtain secret legal opinions” and other Justice Department documents related to the NSA’s warrantless domestic surveillance program, “the most aggressive action yet by Congress in its oversight of the…program.”

Turkey is stepping up its presence along its border with Iraq to levels not seen in years in an effort to root out Kurdish separatist guerrillas who take refuge in northern Iraq. That means that as the American military struggles to control the violence in central Iraq, a second conflict could spill across its northern border.”

4: Number of U.S. deaths in Iraq per day in June, with a total of 23 deaths in the first six days of the month. The total death toll for American forces is now 3504

Consumer confidence tumbled to a 10-month low” in the face of “nagging worries about gasoline prices, if the yearlong housing slump will worsen and drag down home prices further and whether the economy will, in fact, snap out of its sluggish spell.”

“Governors from eight U.S. states on Thursday protested to Congress about possible legislation that they claim will limit their efforts to cut automobile and small-truck emissions. If passed as written in draft form, the legislation would wipe out California’s landmark effort to cut auto and light-truck greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 30 percent by 2030.”

“While the Government Accountability Office (GAO) contended with controversy surrounding a pay-for-performance system that denied nearly 17 percent of its employees cost-of-living increases last year, 72 senior executives and senior-level employees received bonuses totaling more than $900,000 in fiscal year 2006.”

And finally: Yesterday in the Alabama Senate, “harsh words” led to “a punch being thrown” between Sens. Charles Bishop (R) and Lowell Barron (D). “Bishop said he punched Barron after the senator called him a ‘son of a b*tch.’ … Bishop said he regretted throwing the punch because ‘that’s not the way grown men solve their problems,’ but he said he would not immediately apologize to Barron.” (Watch video HERE.)

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GOOD NEWS

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a bill that restores habeas corpus rights to detainees, giving them “access to federal courts to challenge their imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”

STATE WATCH

MARYLAND: A county superintendent urges that all middle and high schools get taught health lessons on sexual orientation and condom usage.

NEW JERSEY: Emphasizing preventative care, state Senate committee approves mandatory HIV/AIDS testing for all newborns.

CALIFORNIA: California citizens may get to cast an up or down vote on the Iraq war.

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Former Justice Department official suspects foul play in election-timed indictments.

BIBLE BELT BLOGGER: Bush administration defends Surgeon General nominee’s anti-gay remarks, saying “in 1991, homosexuals were banned from the military.” They still are.

WINDOW ON WASHINGTON: Study finds that the Bush administration “engaged in a three-year effort to suppress” votes.

DANGER ROOM: U.S. Army War College professor: military should “stop fighting insurgents” and start serving as “neutral mediators and peacekeepers.”

DAILY GRILL

“Think about the message we have sent them. We have undermined their efforts, lowered their morale, and clearly sent the wrong message.”
— House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), 5/24/07, on the supposed harm Congress causes U.S. troops when it debates alternatives to President Bush’s failed Iraq policies

VERSUS

“I believe the sort of people that are serving in American armed forces today understand the democratic process. And, in fact, that’s what we’ve sworn to protect and defend. … I don’t believe it undercuts their morale.”
— President Bush’s “war czar” nominee Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, 6/7/07