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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Breaking the law has consequences

My overall analysis of today's extraordinary federal court decision on the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program is in the post below, here. I also have an article up at Salon summarizing the importance of this ruling, here. But I wanted to emphasize in a separate post what I think is one of the most important consequences of today's events.

In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (.pdf), the Supreme Court -- as Marty Lederman was the first to note -- rejected the Bush administration's principal defense for its violations of the Geneva Conventions not only with regard to military commissions, but generally. By holding that Common Article 3 of the Conventions applies to all detainees, and a failure to treat detainees in compliance with Common Article 3 constitutes "war crimes," the Supreme Court effectively found that Bush officials have authorized and engaged in felony violations of the War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. sec. 2241), which makes it a federal crime to violate war treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. That is why the administration is busy at work trying to change that law so as to retroactively legalize their conduct -- because the Supreme Court all but branded them war criminals, and the consequences of that can be severe.

And now, a federal court in Michigan -- the first to rule on the legality of the President's NSA program -- just rejected all of the administration's defenses for eavesdropping in violation of FISA, effectively finding that the administration has been engaged in deliberate criminal acts by eavesdropping without judicial approval. And as I documented previously, Hamdan itself independently compels rejection of the administration's only defenses to its violations of FISA. Eavesdropping in violation of FISA is a federal crime, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine (50 U.S.C. 1809).

Thus, judicial decisions are starting to emerge which come close to branding the conduct of Bush officials as criminal. FISA is a criminal law. The administration has been violating that law on purpose, with no good excuse. Government officials who violate the criminal law deserve to be -- and are required to be -- held accountable just like any other citizens who violate the law. That is a basic, and critically important, principle in our system of government. These are not abstract legalistic questions being decided. They amount to rulings that our highest government officials have been systematically breaking the law -- criminal laws -- in numerous ways. And no country which lives under the rule of law can allow that to happen with impunity.

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I will be on Democracy Now, with Amy Goodman, tomorrow morning at 8:10 a.m. EST to discuss this ruling. Local television and radio listings for this program are here.

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