Obama's New FBI Chief Approved Bush's NSA Warrantless Wiretapping Scheme
James Comey becomes just the latest symbol of the Obama legacy: normalizing what was very recently viewed as radical
One of the biggest scandals of the Bush administration (which is really saying something) began on December 16, 2005. That was when the New York Times' James Risen and Eric Lichtblau were finally allowed to reveal what they had learned more than a year earlier: namely, that President Bush, in 2002, had ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the electronic communications of US citizens without first obtaining warrants from the FISA court as required by 30-year-old criminal law. For the next three years, they reported, the NSA "monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants." The two NYT reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for that story.
To say that progressives and liberals bellowed sustained outrage over that revelation is to understate the case. That NSA program was revealed less than two months after I first began writing about political issues, and I spent the next full year overwhelmingly focused on that story, and also wrote my first book on it. In progressive circles, the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program was the pure symbol of Bush/Cheney radicalism and lawlessness: they secretly decided that they were empowered to break the law, to commit what US statutes classified as felonies, based on extremist theories of executive power that held that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, was entitled under Article II of the Constitution to eavesdrop however he wanted in the name of national security, even if it meant doing exactly that which the law forbade.
The FISA law provided that anyone who eavesdrops without the required warrants - exactly what Bush officials did - is committing a felony "punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than five years, or both" - for each offense. Moreover, all three federal judges who actually ruled on the merits of the Bush NSA warrantless eavesdropping program concluded that it violated the law.
So why, then, was there no accountability for this systematic illegal spying? That happened for two reasons. First, both the Bush DOJ and then the Obama DOJ successfully convinced obsequious federal courts that the eavesdropping program was so secretive that national security would be harmed if courts were to adjudicate its legality - in other words, top government officials should be placed above and beyond the rule of law because doing so is necessary to Keep Us Safe™. Second, the Bush DOJ's most senior lawyers - Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy Attorney General James Comey and OLC chief Jack Goldsmith - approved a legal memorandum in 2004 endorsing radical executive power theories and warped statutory interpretations, concluding that the Bush NSA warrantless eavesdropping program was legal, thus making it more difficult to prosecute the Bush officials who ordered it (even if the Obama DOJ were inclined to prosecute, which they were not).
It was announced yesterday that this very same James Comey - who as Bush's Deputy Attorney General authorized the once-very-controversial, patently illegal Bush NSA eavesdropping program - is President Obama's choice to be the new Director of the FBI.
How are Obama's most devoted media loyalists reacting to the news that he is about to put in charge of the FBI the Bush lawyer who authorized the illegal NSA warrantless eavesdropping program based on warped right-wing legal theories? Exactly as you would expect. Here's one of them - who wrote post after post after post in 2006 and 2007 vehemently denouncing the NSA program which Comey authorized and the theories on which it was based - hailing Comey as "not only non partisan in [his] job but consistently put constitutional equities at center [of his] thinking".
It is true that Comey was at the center of a dramatic Bush-era political controversy that earned him praise from many Bush critics, including me. Comey was one of the Bush DOJ lawyers who, along with Ashcroft, Goldsmith, and FBI Director Robert Mueller, had threatened to resign if Bush did not modify the NSA program in order to make it legal in Comey's eyes, and he then went to the hospital where Ashcroft was quite ill to prevent then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andy Card from bullying the infirm and barely cogent Attorney General into signing off on the legality of the NSA program.
In other words, there was something the NSA was doing for years - that we still don't know - even more extreme than the illegal NSA program revealed by the NYT in 2005. It was Comey, along with Ashcroft, Mueller, and Goldsmith, who threatened to resign if it did not stop, and they deserve credit for that. But the reason they didn't end up resigning was because Bush officials "modified" that NSA program into something those lawyers could and did endorse: the still-illegal, still-radical NSA eavesdropping program that spied on the communications of Americans without warrants and in violation of the law. And this was accomplished by inventing a new legal theory to accompany the old one: that Congress, when it enacted the 2001 AUMF, silently and "implicitly" authorized Bush to eavesdrop in exactly the ways the law expressly forbade.
Thus, it was Comey who gave his legal approval to enable that NSA eavesdropping program to spy on Americans without warrants: the same program that produced so much outrage and scandal when revealed by the NYT. How can any progressive who spent the Bush years vehemently denouncing that domestic spying program as the symbol of Bush radicalism and lawlessness now cheer when the lawyer who approved it is about to be put in charge of the FBI?
Then there's Comey's mixed and quite murky role in authorizing Bush's torture program. Internal DOJ emails released to the New York Times in 2009 show Comey expressing serious reservations, and even objections, to the willingness of Albert Gonzales to legally authorize any interrogation techniques the White House wanted, and he warned those officials that their involvement would be condemned by history. But even as he did so, Comey, as the New York Times explained, eventually, albeit reluctantly, gave his legal approval to those techniques:
"Previously undisclosed Justice Department e-mail messages, interviews and newly declassified documents show that some of the lawyers, including James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general who argued repeatedly that the United States would regret using harsh methods, went along with a 2005 legal opinion asserting that the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency were lawful.
"That opinion, giving the green light for the CIA to use all 13 methods in interrogating terrorism suspects, including waterboarding and up to 180 hours of sleep deprivation, 'was ready to go out and I concurred,' Mr. Comey wrote to a colleague in an April 27, 2005, e-mail message obtained by The New York Times."
As I wrote at the time, the NYT article significantly overstated Comey's role in approving these torture programs. But it is true that he ultimately acquiesced to their legalization.
There's no question that James Comey was far from among the worst people at the Bush DOJ. He's not John Yoo or David Addington, some of whose theories he rejected. He engaged in some rare, commendable conduct, including objecting to the more extreme version of the NSA program to the point of threatening resignation, and voicing serious reservations about the wisdom of some of the more extreme torture techniques. I understand the respect people have for some of what he did, and even share it.
But whatever else was true, he was the lawyer who legally approved that warrantless NSA program that the New York Times revealed that caused so much scandal. And he was part of the process that legalized the torture techniques used by the Bush administration. How can that possibly not disqualify him from running the FBI in the eyes of progressives who claimed to find all of that so atrocious and such an assault on all that is dear and good in the world?
But this is exactly where the Obama administration has taken us. Comey will run the FBI alongside Obama's chief of the CIA, John Brennan, who spent the Bush years advocating multiple torture techniques and rendition. The Agent of Change reaches deep into the bowels of the Bush National Security State and empowers them to run two of the most powerful agencies. Then again, the Bush NSA program is hardly controversial in the Age of Obama: it was Obama who first voted to immunize the telecoms from all legal liability for their illegal participation in that program, then the Obama DOJ succeeded in having all lawsuits over that program dismissed on secrecy and immunity grounds, and then Obama himself succeeded in first enacting and then renewing the law that legalized most aspects of that Bush NSA eavesdropping program.
What was once deemed radical is now normal. Bush officials who formally authorized programs once depicted by progressives as radical and criminal are now heralded by those same progressives as Champions of the Constitution. The politician elected on a pledge of Change and Restoration of Our Values now routinely empowers exactly those Washington officials who championed the policies against which he railed. It's one thing to watch Obama shield and protect all Bush officials who enabled this illegal warrantless domestic surveillance scheme. It's quite another to watch him put in charge of the FBI the very official whose signature deemed it to be legal.
James Comey is far from the worst choice to lead the FBI. I doubt it will change much of anything one way or the other, and there are undoubtedly worse people within the senior ranks of the Democratic Party who would be the likely alternatives. But it's still a potent symbol of how little has changed in the right direction and how much it has changed in the wrong direction. If you had told progressives in 2008 that the Bush lawyer who approved the NSA program would be named by Obama as the FBI Director, they would scoff in disbelief. Now they'll cheer. That is what has changed.
Holder's off-the-record meeting with media outlets
Following up on yesterday's column about Eric Holder's attempts to meet with media outlets over the leak investigations controversy and his demand that the meeting be off-the-record: several organizations have commendably refused to attend under those conditions, including the New York Times, Associated Press, the Huffington Post and (even) CNN. Unsurprisingly, both Politico and the Washington Post will eagerly submit to that condition and attend the meeting, even though they'll be barred from telling their readers what was discussed. Here is the unbelievable response of the official spokesman of the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse, upon learning that several leading media outlets will not attend under that condition:
Unless media outlets submit to the Attorney General's demand that they meet with him off-the-record, then they "forfeit their right to gripe" over the DOJ's seizure of their emails and telephone records and labeling them as criminals. Thus decree-eth the DNC.
Another of the most controversial acts of the Bush administration was the due-process-free imprisonment of US citizen Jose Padilla, who was arrested in 2002 on US soil, then put in a military brig, without charges, for 3 1/2 years. During that time, he was denied a lawyer, held incommunicado, and tortured. That was the incident that, more than any other, really motivated me to begin writing about politics: back then, it actually shocked me that the US government would claim the power to imprison US citizens on US soil without charges of any kind. As Charles Davis recalls, it was James Comey who took a leading role in the Bush administration in defending that lawless imprisonment, arguing in 2004:
"Had we tried to make a case against Jose Padilla through our criminal justice system, something that I, as the United States attorney in New York, could not do at that time without jeopardizing intelligence sources, he would very likely have followed his lawyer's advice and said nothing, which would have been his constitutional right.
"He would likely have ended up a free man, with our only hope being to try to follow him 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and hope -- pray, really -- that we didn't lose him. . . .
"Two years ago, the president of the United States faced a very difficult choice. After a careful process, he decided to declare Jose Padilla for what he was: an enemy combatant, a member of a terrorist army bent on waging war against innocent civilians. And the president's decision was to hold him to protect the American people and to find out what he knows.
"We now know much of what Jose Padilla knows, and what we have learned confirms that the president of the United States made the right call, and that that call saved lives."
Indeed, when the Bush administration declared Padilla to be an "enemy combatant" and thus removed him from the civilian court system and imprisoned him without charges, Comey was the US Attorney in New York, where Padilla's case was contested. He then became a leading advocate for Bush's denial of the most basic due process to this US citizen. That is who Obama-loyal progressives today are hailing. And that is who is about to lead the FBI, thanks to President Obama.
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