Holder Advocates Some Constitutional Principles
April 15, 2009. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a lengthy speech at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in which he discussed the role of law in "our current struggle against international terrorism".
It was a plea for adherence to Constitutional principles. However, it was as significant for what he said -- about detention of people in places like Guantanamo Bay -- as for what he did not say -- about interception of communications and seizure of data.
He spoke with specificity about Guantanamo Bay, detainees, and the history of American treatment of detained soldiers and citizens.
But, he said nothing that suggested an intent to reverse, or halt, the deterioration of Constitutional protection of privacy and liberty interests in the context of new communications and information technologies.
Holder (at right) said, "And so it is today, at the beginning of a new presidency, as we face a world filled with danger, that we must once again chart a course rooted in the rule of law and grounded in both the powers and the limitations it prescribes."
He said that "we will not sacrifice our values or trample on our Constitution under the false premise that it is the only way to protect our national security. Discarding the very values that have made us the greatest nation on earth will not make us stronger -- it will make us weaker and tear at the very fibers of who we are. There simply is no tension between an effective fight against those who have sworn to do us harm, and a respect for the most honored civil liberties that have made us who we are."
This statement could equally apply to government surveillance activities. But, he did not say so. Perhaps Holder intends to speak in a similar speech about surveillance at a later date. Or perhaps, he does not, and his concern for Constitutional rights is selective and does not extend to surveillance.
He did make one statement that may pertain to electronic surveillance and data. He said that "many national security decisions must by necessity be made in a manner that protects our ability to gather intelligence, investigate threats and execute wars".
He did not reference the state secrets privilege, or the government's assertion of it in legal proceedings involving warrantless wiretaps.
On April 3, 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a motion to dismiss and memorandum in support [36 pages in PDF] in Jewell v. NSA, a case against the NSA, DOJ, Holder and officials, arising out of the NSA's warrantless wiretap program.
The DOJ asserts the state secrets privilege, sovereign immunity, and other arguments, to evade litigation of this case on the merits.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) stated in a release that "These are essentially the same arguments made by the Bush administration".
This case is Carolyn Jewell, Tash Hepting, et al. v. National Security Agency, et al., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division, D.C. No. C:08-cv-4373-VRW.
Ed Black, head of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), stated in a release issued in response to Holder's speech that "It's disturbing that instead of helping investigate the extent of spying by the Bush administration, the new administration is not just defending those policies, but taking them a step further. In its April court brief (Jewel v. NSA), the Obama DOJ argued that the government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying and even that it can never be sued for violating federal privacy laws with surveillance techniques. Those arguments sound more like `1984´ than 2009".
Black continued that "President Obama appreciates more than most people how the Internet can be used as a tool to allow greater participation in a democracy. That same tool could also be the greatest innovation for surveillance and repression in the wrong regime. Defending practices like this sets a dangerous precedent down the road and makes it easier for a government to expand the programs from surveilling terrorists to surveilling political opponents".
"The Obama administration had the courage to change policy on the treatment
of terrorism suspects and how they were treated and sometimes tortured", said
Black. "But the abuse of the privacy rights of millions of U.S. citizens is a
greater long term threat to the rule of law and the Constitutional rights of all
Americans. The failure to allow the full investigation of the surveillance abuse
by both the government and major collaborating industry giants would be a tragic
betrayal by an administration so many were looking to for greater honesty,
openness, and respect for all citizens’ constitutional rights."