September 24, 2015–The story of what happened with the National Security Agency’s massive domestic eavesdropping program just keeps getting blacker, even as it comes into better focus. Today’s entry in the NSA sweepstakes concerns what we learn from a new redaction of a review of the program codenamed Stellar Wind that resulted from an investigation by the inspectors general of five agencies. A more heavily expurgated version of this document had been declassified a while back, but the New York Times sued to get the full report released. Among the details in the latest version are ones that should make your skin crawl. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Big Brother almost succeeded in extending his umbrella across the land–and I don’t mean simply the big ear of the NSA.
Stellar Wind is the real name for the so-called “President’s Surveillance Program,” the innocuous-sounding name someone dreamed up when news of the NSA surveillance program leaked midway through Bush’s years and the administration scrambled to defend and extend it. I wrote about this at some length in my book The Family Jewels. We generally understood that Mr. Bush had approved the eavesdropping a couple of days after the September 11 attacks, that it aimed at terrorists, that he re-approved it every 45 days. There was a remarkable confrontation in March 2004 at George Washington University Hospital, where Attorney General John Ashcroft had gone for treatment of pancreatitus, and White House officials (chief of staff Andrew Card, top lawyer Alberto Gonzales, and vice-presidential counsel David Addington) went there in an attempt to induce Ashcroft to sign the latest renewal. Press accounts previously indicated that the dispute centered on NSA’s desire to widen its collection to cover all Americans. In the new declassification we learn that it was much worse.
The NSA program–like the CIA’s torture project–was based on faulty legal advice (in fact, the same faulty legal advice) from Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, with his imperial vision of presidential power. Once Yoo left the Department of Justice (DOJ) in the spring of 2003, his superiors looked at the legal advice underlying Stellar Wind and found it wanting. The problem was that there was a law that laid down conditions for what the NSA was doing and that Yoo’s analysis had wholly failed to take this into account. Yoo’s successor was not initially permitted to know of Stellar Wind and could not craft a new justification for it. Then Dick Cheney’s lawyer told DOJ it would have to justify the request before he would ask President Bush to bring the DOJ official into the circle of those who knew of Stellar Wind.
I note that because we’re seen Addington’s footprints before, all over both CIA and NSA Bush-era actions, and sure enough he’s got a central role here. Anyway, the problem in May 2004 began when DOJ found the NSA had already exceeded its authorities and was collecting beyond what the legal memoranda provided. Late the previous year DOJ officials had informed Addington and Gonzales at the White House that they had doubts regarding Stellar Wind. The White House lawyers bristled when DOJ officials asked permission to inform Deputy Attorney General James Comey. As it happened, even before Comey was formally brought into the circle he harbored doubts, which he talked over with John Ashcroft only hours before the latter had his medical emergency and went to the hospital. It was at that point, with Stellar Wind up for its latest re-authorization, that Alberto Gonzales phoned DOJ asking for a letter certifying that John Yoo’s (now discredited) legal opinions still applied. Top DOJ officials determined that the Yoo memoranda failed to accurately describe, much less justify, the NSA spying. The Justice Department refused.
At noon that day senior White House, NSA, and CIA officials convened to consider how to proceed. Vice-President Cheney told the group they might have to re-authorize Stellar Wind without the participation of the Justice Department. At that point the FBI director declared such a move would be a problem for him too. This was when the Bush people decided to have the meeting with congressional officials that Mr. Cheney makes so much of in his memoir (claiming Congress approved when he was doing)–when the White had been blocked from proceeding.
This is also the backdrop for the rush to Ashcroft’s bedside, where Card, Addington and Gonzales pushed their way into the hospital room over the protests of Mrs. Ashcroft; and DOJ officials too rushed in to stiffen their boss’s backbone. The Justice Department officials got there first. Ashcroft told the Bush people that Mr. Comey was the man they had to deal with so long as he remained in the hospital.
At that point Mr. Bush’s subordinates left, and they presented the president with a re-authorization document the next morning that George W. Bush signed. It had no Justice Department certification, and there were three more big differences from previous iterations of Stellar Wind:
(1) the document asserted that Chapter 119 of Title 18 of U.S. Code was “displaced” by a president’s authority as commander-in-chief;
(2) explicit statements replacing language requiring some terrorism-connection for a telephone metadata connection with a stipulation the collection merely had to be in pursuance of the authorization document itself; and
(3) a disingenuous invocation of Attorney General Ashcroft’s support with an assertion that DOJ had approved similar authorizations in the past.
In the paperwork that circulated around this dispute is a memo from David Addington–the man who used to carry a vest-pocket copy of the Constitution in his jacket–saying that with this authorization President Bush had decided to reinterpret the laws of the United States.
It was at that point when the ranking officials of the Department of Justice, plus the FBI director, threatened to resign en mass if this maneuver was permitted to stand. Over the next few days President Bush met with Mr. Comey, a different renewal was crafted with the old terms, differences papered over, and the move begun toward putting Stellar Wind within some kind of legal framework. In many posts on this site I have argued that framework was unconstitutional, but at least it was not a direct usurpation of the legislative power of lawmaking in the United States, as was contained in the NSA renewal document of March 11, 2004. That document was the equivalent of a coup d’état. It would have ended constitutional government in the United States. Big Brother still has to wait.