Presidential advisers, both Democratic and Republican, long ago discovered ways to magnify presidential power at the cost of legal principles and the system of checks and balances. This essay briefly considers the limits to executive branch capacity to provide reliable legal and constitutional analysis in times of emergency, including covert military operations. It highlights the special risks government faces when the circle of presidential advisers narrows because of highly classified operations and there is less opportunity for senior officials, including attorneys, to pass judgment on pending initiatives.
On December 6, 2007, the Central Intelligence Agency publicly disclosed that in 2005 it had destroyed videotapes of CIA interrogations of alleged terrorist Abu Zubaydah conducted in 2002 and asserted that the destruction was “in line with the law.” The disclosure resulted in calls for congressional investigations; a motion for contempt in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); emergency motions in Guantánamo detainee cases; questions about the case of Zacharias Moussaoui; and an angry op-ed from the chairmen of the 9/11 Commission. The crux of these public reactions – as with the criminal investigation that resulted – was primarily the narrow issue whether the destruction of the tapes was illegal because they were relevant to pending or foreseeable cases or investigations.
Breakthrough science can lead both to great good and to great evil. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the anthrax letter attacks that followed highlight the fact that our enemies may use our own advanced science and technology against us. When the dissemination of scientific information might jeopardize national security, the federal government’s primary response has always been to try to control the spread of that information. In a variety of ways, the government has long restricted public access to scientific information in the government’s possession. Since September 11, the government has further tightened access to its own information, withholding from public view not just classified data but also so-called “sensitive” information, the release of which it says could pose a danger to national security.