In Potential Recusal Reversal, Neil Gorsuch Leaves Door Open to Hearing Supreme Court Cases Involving Billionaire Backer Philip Anschutz

My Denver-based colleague Julie Turkewitz and I have been taking a look at the relationship between Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court nominee, and Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz. The New York Times published it tonight and it will be in tomorrow’s newspaper. One thing the article deals with briefly is the question of whether Gorsuch will recuse himself from cases involving Anschutz’s numerous business interests. This is too weedy of an issue to plumb in depth in a newspaper article, but I’ll explore it a bit more here for legal ethics nerds.

Bottom line up front: Gorsuch systematically sought to recuse himself from such cases on the appeals court, but he is signaling that he may change that practice and leave himself free to participate in cases involving Anschutz’s interests if he is confirmed to the Supreme Court.


At the appeals court, Gorsuch routinely recused himself (with one slip-up) from Anschutz related cases “because my former client” was involved, according to a list he submitted to the Senate. When working on the article, I asked him, via his team, whether he would continue that same practice at the Supreme Court, expecting to hear “yes.” But that’s not what they said.

Instead, his spokeswoman, Liz Johnson, emphasized to me that his recusal practice at the appeals court “likely goes well beyond what is required by law or his ethical obligations.” And she pointed me to a section about recusals in his recent Senate questionnaire in which, while pledging to recuse from “cases that might give rise to an actual or apparent conflict of interest,” he also wrote that his appeals court precautions have been “broader than the recusal procedure adopted in the Supreme Court, which I would follow should l assume the position to which I have been nominated.”

Let’s unpack that. The first thing to know is that justices don’t like to recuse in part because, unlike at the appeals court level, there is no one to replace them if they step aside. And the Supreme Court’s procedure is that individual justices decide for themselves whether a vague standard for recusal set by a 1974 statute is met; there is no appeal if they decide to stay on a case.

That statute says judges and justices should recuse whenever their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” So it goes beyond situations where a judge has an actual conflict of interest that would make it unethical to participate in a case; the idea is to preserve public confidence that the judiciary is fair by having judges and justices step aside even when there is only an appearance of a conflict. But the statute does not specifically address whether an observer might reasonably think that a justice like Gorsuch might be biased in favor of a former client (and more!) like Anschutz.

There is not a lot of precedent to examine for guidance about how justices have interpreted the issue of whether cases involving former clients raise an actual or apparent conflict of interest, in part because few modern justices had extensive backgrounds in private practice. But the clearest precedent suggests that it’s acceptable to hear cases involving a former client: Justice Clarence Thomas, who worked as in-house counsel for Monsanto from 1977 to 1979, nevertheless has participated in cases involving that company.

I followed up via Ms. Johnson, saying the roundabout answer, in light of all this, strongly suggested that Judge Gorsuch was leaving himself free to start participating in Anschutz-linked cases at the Supreme Court and requesting clarification if that was not his intended signal. She checked back and provided no further response on his behalf regarding the topic.


Anschutz is an oil and gas mogul who has diversified into a sprawling empire across many different companies and sectors, which inevitably leads to business-related litigation from contract disputes and environmental fights to shareholder lawsuits. He’s also a major donor to Republican campaigns and to a long list of conservative advocacy groups, including the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. They worked together to develop the list of potential Supreme Court nominees from which then-candidate Trump promised conservatives he would pick, putting Gorsuch’s name on it.

Gorsuch has longstanding ties to Anschutz and his network:

  • In the early 2000s, while working at a law firm, Gorsuch represented Anschutz and his companies in a variety of lawsuits and other matters as outside counsel
  • In 2005, after leaving his law firm to join the Bush Justice Department, Gorsuch formed a limited-liability company with two Anschutz lieutenants: Cannon Harvey, a confidante of Anschutz who runs his company’s venture capital arm, and Kevin Conwick, Anschutz’s lead counsel on numerous sports team and stadium development deals through the years. They bought, and still own, a 40-acre vacation property along the Colorado River, where they built a house. Gorsuch has the smallest stake in the company, but county property records direct correspondence about it to him.
  • In 2006, Anschutz helped secure Gorsuch’s appointment to a vacant Colorado seat on the federal appeals court in Denver, first by suggesting to Colorado’s only Republican senator at the time, Wayne Allard, a major recipient of Anschutz-related campaign donations, that Gorsuch was the one.  (Home-state senators, especially of the president’s party, have significant influence over whom a president nominates to judgeships in their states, including veto power through the Senate’s blue-slip process.) With Allard’s blessing, Anschutz then took his case to the White House.
    • UPDATE: This does not appear to be a case of Gorsuch already being in the mix and Anschutz adding his voice to the chorus of praise; rather, there is evidence Anschutz instigated it:
      • On January 10, 2006, the Denver Post reported the names of three people the White House was said to be considering for the pending vacancy; Gorsuch was not one of them. (Its sourcing was anonymous, but the reporter was clearly well sourced in the office of Senator Wayne Allard, and she later had the scoop that the White House had told Allard that Gorsuch was the nominee.)
      • On January 12, Anschutz’s lawyer sent the letter to White House Counsel Harriet Miers “to suggest that the President consider” nominating Gorsuch, saying Anschutz had already spoken to Allard about it. The letter included an introduction to Gorsuch: his resume and a one-page summary of why he’d be a good choice re Colorado roots and Republican credentials.
      • On February 2, Gorsuch was interviewed by Miers and other WHC lawyers.
      • On March 16, Bush approved their recommendation that he make Gorsuch the lead candidate for the nomination, pending a background check.
  • Since becoming a judge, Gorsuch has been a semi-regular keynote speaker at Anschutz’s annual dove hunt parties for fellow elites – speaking there in 2010, 2012 or 2013, and 2015, according to his Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire

Bipartisan support for C.I.A. general counsel nominee Courtney Simmons Elwood from some national security legal policy veterans

Last night, President Trump announced nominees for two key posts on the national security interagency lawyers group: John J. Sullivan of Mayer Brown to be general counsel of the Department of Defense and Courtney Simmons Elwood of Kellogg Hansen to be general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency. This post is about the latter.

Elwood was a White House lawyer in the first term of the Bush administration, including as a deputy to Vice President Cheney’s counsel David Addington. In Bush’s second term, she was a counselor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (She is also one half of a D.C. legal power couple — her husband is John Elwood of Vinson & Elkins, who was the top deputy the Office of Legal Counsel in the second term of the Bush administration.)

When the warrantless wiretapping component of Stellarwind came to light in December 2005, she had an exchange of e-mails about whether it was legal with David Kris, who later became assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration. That exchange, which came to light in a FOIA case, is rather famous among surveillance nerds.

So it is especially notable that Kris, along with Caroline Krass, who was C.I.A. general counsel in the second term of the Obama administration, is now vouching for Elwood in various quotes compiled by the C.I.A.’s public affairs office. Here are those quotes; I’ve added which administration the speaker worked for in brackets.


Quotes of Support for Courtney Elwood, Nominee for CIA General Counsel


C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo [Trump administration]

  • “Ms. Elwood understands the CIA’s mission and critical role of the rule of law in achieving that mission,” said CIA Director Mike Pompeo.  “The warriors at CIA look forward to her joining in our mission to be the premier espionage agency in the world.”

Wan Kim, former Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division [Bush administration]

  • “Courtney Elwood is a careful, brilliant, and highly accomplished lawyer.  I have known Courtney for more than 20 years, and worked with her in both private practice and the government.  She has proved time and time again that she is dedicated to the rule of law, and I have no doubt that she will serve the country exceptionally well as General Counsel for the CIA,” said Wan Kim, former Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

David Kris, former Assistant Attorney General for National Security [Obama administration]

  • “Courtney Elwood and I worked together during the administration of President George W. Bush, including in the immediate aftermath of the September 11attacks.  I know her to be a first-class lawyer with tremendous acumen, judgment, and respect for the rule of law.  I am delighted that she has been nominated for General Counsel of the CIA.  The agency and the country will both benefit immensely from her service,” said David Kris, former Assistant Attorney General for National Security.

Caroline Krass, former CIA General Counsel [Obama administration]

  • “Courtney is an excellent choice for this demanding position. She is intelligent and level-headed and will be inheriting a highly experienced and dedicated team,” said Caroline Krass, former CIA General Counsel.

Ben Powell, former General Counsel to the Director of National Intelligence and Former Associate Counsel and Special Assistant to the President  [Bush administration]

  • “I have been a colleague of Courtney Simmons Elwood for almost two decades during both government service and in the private sector.  She is one of the finest lawyers of her generation, known for her intellect, integrity, and judgment.  Her broad legal experience at the highest levels of the government and private sector provides an excellent foundation for service as General Counsel of the CIA.  The men and women of the CIA will be well-served by having a General Counsel with the wisdom, experience, dedication, and judgment of Ms. Elwood,” said Ben Powell, Former General Counsel to the Director of National Intelligence and Former Associate Counsel and Special Assistant to the President.

Ken Wainstein, former Homeland Security Advisor to the President and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security [Bush administration]

  • “Courtney Elwood is an outstanding choice for CIA General Counsel.  An exceptional lawyer with extensive experience in the private sector and government, she has a well-deserved reputation for professionalism, integrity and commitment to the rule of law.  The Agency could not ask for a better lawyer and counselor to help guide it through the many national security challenges facing our country today,” said Kenneth L. Wainstein, former Homeland Security

Partial victory in FOIA case for Durham torture investigation memos

Late yesterday, Judge J. Paul Oetken of the Southern District of New York handed down an important ruling in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit the Times and I have been pursuing over memos about the criminal investigation into the C.I.A. torture program. The memos were written by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham, who oversaw the investigation, to then-Attorney General Eric Holder. They compiled his investigative findings and his recommendations. No charges were brought as a result of the case.

Durham was originally appointed in 2008 by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to look into the C.I.A.’s destruction of videotapes of interrogation sessions, and in 2009 Holder expanded his mandate to investigate whether the abuses of detainees that went beyond techniques the Bush Justice Department had blessed as lawful broke any laws. Durham eventually recommended no charges be brought, and his investigation ended in 2012.

We fought the lawsuit in stages. In September 2015, Judge Oetken delivered a mixed preliminary verdict. He ruled that the government could continue to withhold the the F.B.I.’s “302 reports” summarizing witness interviews and Durham’s reports about the videotape destruction, but said that the government must disclose, at least in part, Durham’s reports about detainee abuses. His reasoning turned on the fact that Holder extensively cited and expressly relied upon the latter in public statements discussing the decision not to bring charges, so the government had waived its right, under an exception to FOIA for predecisional, deliberative, and attorney-client privileged information, to keep it secret.

We then fought another round over other exceptions to FOIA. In his new ruling, Judge Oetken delivered another mixed verdict, delivering a partial victory to the government and a partial victory to us. For example a recommendation memo and parts of the declination memo fall outside the exception for secret grand jury materials, but other exemptions, including for classified information (like countries where black site prisons were located) and material that would raise personal privacy issues (like identities of witnesses and potential targets) go to the government.

Because the exceptions he said did apply to certain materials may be overlapping, it is not clear what portions of the memos the government would make public if it complied with his ruling. However, it would not be surprising if the Justice Department instead appeals to the Second Circuit.

The Times’ lawyer, David McCraw, is handling the FOIA lawsuit.

Trump administration gives copy of full, still-secret CIA torture report to judicial branch

The last iteration of the Obama administration’s ambivalent  “look forward not back” attitude toward the defunct Bush-era CIA torture program — banning it, but not investigating what happened — was the Obama Justice Department’s resistance to an effort to get a copy of the full, still-classified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report about that program deposited with the judiciary for safekeeping during the Trump years. But as the Obama era came to an end, two Federal District Court judges for the District of Columbia ordered the executive branch to provide a copy of the report to the court’s security officer, and today, on the deadline set by one of them, the Trump administration complied rather than appeal.





A Proposed Grand Bargain for Fixing Breezewood

Today the NYT published a deep-dive I wrote about why Breezewood – a notorious gap in the interstate highway system at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 70 that is familiar to the millions of people who drive between the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest each year – exists and has never been fixed.

Here’s a couple tangents that didn’t make it into the story. The first is some back-of-envelope guesstimates I came up with about the societal and environmental costs of the status quo arrangement, and the second is a potential grand bargain to fix it.


First, while developing the piece, I did some thinking about the social and environmental costs of continuing to make the cars and trucks that pass through Breezewood without stopping drive the extra two miles – that is, what benefits would accrue if cloverleaf ramps were built where I-70 passes over the Turnpike entrance/exit ramp, permitting only those people who wanted a pit stop in Breezewood to go there.

To do that I used the same methodology the American Transportation Research Institute used to come up with its estimate that 1.5 million trucks pass through there each year, and came up with an estimate that 3.5 million passenger cars do, too. That made it into the piece.

Here’s some guesstimate work that didn’t: Because we know from GPS data that of the 1.5 million trucks making that connection, about 80 percent do not stop, I assumed that roughly the same ratio was true of the roughly 3.5 million passenger cars that pass through each year. I further assumed that each truck had one human being in it and each car had an average of two. Then, using average fuel efficiency rates, I.R.S. reimbursement rates, and the like, I came up with guesstimates for the cost of making those four million vehicles whose drivers don’t choose to stop pass through Breezewood. The results: if a bypass were built permitting them to make a direct connection, each year it would save about $10 million in vehicle operating costs, avoid unnecessary burning of fuel that spews about 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and save collective time roughly equivalent to an average human lifespan.


But, of course, as the piece lays out, if there were a bypass, some of those million or so drivers who do currently stop and spend money in Breezewood each year (since they are off the interstate already anyway) would inevitably choose some other exit to make a pit stop, damaging the Breezewood economy. That’s why business owners and local politicians have fought so hard over the years to prevent the construction of such a bypass. So the question arises: is there some deal that could be made that would clear the way for a bypass while mitigating the losses to Breezewood?

One thing that came to my attention while researching the place is that there is a lengthy stretch of abandoned turnpike close to Breezewood. It looks post-apocalyptic — portions of “The Road” were filmed on it — but bicycle enthusiasts have started flocking to it because it’s a cool stretch of paved road through the wilderness. Locals in the Breezewood area have proposed trying to fix it up, essentially turning Breezewood into a tourist destination rather than a passing-through spot. They need about $7 million to do things like put lights back in the tunnels of the abandoned turnpike so people could safely bike through them, Steve Howsare, the executive director of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission told me. They would also need to redo the road markings by using line marking machines so the road can be used safely.

Several of the Breezewood business owners and development people I interviewed for the piece are big proponents of this plan; among them, Jim Bittner, whose family owns businesses there, has been pushing it as a way to bring in more people to stay in the hotels and eat in the restaurants even if there is a bypass. (Here’s a master plan from about a decade ago, and here is more recent formal study called “Pike to Bike,” which determined that it would result in $5.1 million to $8.8 million in economic impact and generated between 57 and 144 construction and ongoing support jobs.)

So my idea was, what if society (federal taxpayers) agreed to pay for the safety and access upgrades to make this idea into a reality, and in return business owners and Pennsylvania officials dropped resistance to a bypass?

The most obvious person to ask about that — someone with the role of speaking for everyone in that area — is the Republican Congressman who represents the district in which Breezewood is located, Rep. Bill Shuster. But his office ignored my repeated efforts to reach out for a conversation about Breezewood.

Photo: Torch passes from Obama to Trump at Guantanamo

Eight years ago, this AP pool photo was taken at Guantanamo Bay’s base headquarters building, and it became iconic, showing up in a million blog posts:

This weekend the base public affairs staff (with encouragement first from my friend Carol Rosenberg, it turns out, and then also from me) took and released this one:

170120-N-TP834-007 GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (Jan. 20, 2020)Builder Constructionman Logan Weber, assigned to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB), swaps former president Barack Obama’s photo with President Donald Trump’s at NSGB’s quarterdeck at Bulkley Hall. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Philip Wagner Jr./Released)

U.S. counterterrorism airstrikes away from combat zones killed just one civilian in 2016, government says

Late last evening, in the waning hours of Obama administration control of the national security state, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report about counterterrorism drone strikes and other bombings away from “areas of active hostilities” for 2016. It said there were 53 such airstrikes, and they killed between 431 and 441 militants and precisely one civilian.

This was the first time we have seen official targeted killing statistics for a single year, which is interesting because we can therefore know with more precision what went into it. For example, we know that a single, huge airstrike in Somalia last March, on what the governments says was a sort of graduation ceremony for Shabab militants, killed about 150 people, so that event alone accounts for more than a third of the annual death toll. It may also be the last time we see them.

We are getting this information because earlier in 2016, Obama issued an executive order requiring an annual public tally and also disclosing numbers for 2009-2015, but because the older numbers were lumped together it was harder to understand what they represented. (See this blog entry for a discussion of a hypothesis I pursued about how DOD was calculating battle damage assessments as a possible explanation of why the earlier civilian death numbers seemed dubiously low.)

The places covered here would include tribal Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya outside of the Sirte region — all places where Obama’s 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) rules apply. The PPG requires near-certainty that there will be no civilian deaths and evidence that a target poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to Americans before any such airstrike. See this article for a discussion of escalated bombings in Somalia in 2016 and also the designation of Sirte as an “area of active hostilities.”

Will President-elect (a status he will hold for about one more hour) Trump keep or jettisons the PPG and the executive order requiring disclosure of civilian deaths?




My New York Review of Books review/essay of Snowden book and film

The New York Review of Books asked me to review Edward Jay Epstein’s book about Edward Snowden, “How America Lost Its Secrets,” and the essay I wrote extended to the Oliver Stone biopic. Spoiler: I’m not a big fan of either. The essay is now available online.

Last year I also wrote a NYRB essay about Michael Hayden’s memoir “Playing to the Edge.” There is some thematic linkage between these two reviews.

Obama fights giving copy of torture report to courts for safekeeping

It looks like the  Obama administration is going to leave office without giving a copy of the torture report to the judiciary for safekeeping.

In late December, Judge Royce Lamberth of the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia ordered the Obama administration to deposit a copy of the full, still-classified, 6,000-word Senate Select Committee on Intelligence torture report with the judiciary to be preserved by the court’s information security officer. (I was out of the country at the time, but here’s Josh Gerstein’s write-up.) That was significant because there is a chance that the Trump administration and the now Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee will destroy the report. Obama has entered it in his presidential records, and the National Archives are an independent agency, meaning it would be harder for Trump to fire an Archivist who refused to carry out such an order than it would be for an ordinary agency. But you never know ….

Anyway, today the Obama Justice Department decided to fight Judge Lamberth’s order rather than comply with it. It filed a motion asking to Judge Lamberth to reconsider his order, arguing that it raised constitutional  concerns (interfering with communications between Congress and the executive branch) and was unnecessary anyway given the presidential records thing. And it said that if he didn’t reconsider, the executive branch will appeal. With a week to go in the Obama era, that means even if Judge Lamberth doesn’t budge, the clock will run out before the legal process is exhausted.


The Obama administration released the 2009 interrogation/rendition task force report I sued them for under the Freedom of Information Act

President Obama is today scheduled to deliver his last major speech about national security, which will summarize and defend his counterterrorism legal policy and strategy over the past eight years. Ahead of that, the administration released a pile of documents yesterday. These included a 61-page report that described the legal framework for its counterterrorism policies, and basically synthesized a bunch of previous speeches and documents; a War Powers Resolution letter to Congress that publicly acknowledges what we first reported late last month — that the US has expanded the legal scope of the 9/11 war to encompass Al Shabab in Somalia; a 2012 report to Congress describing detention policy; and — drumroll, please — the 2009 report by Obama’s executive order task force on rendition and interrogation policy, led by J. Douglas Wilson.

I want to draw special attention to the task force report, which is one of the documents whose disclosure I had been seeking in one of my current Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the government.

I had gained access to a copy of this then still-secret report during my research for Power Wars, and described it in some detail in Chapter Four, Section 14 (“The Interrogation and Rendition Task Force”). I zeroed in on a few things about it.

One was the fact, not mentioned in a press release issued in August 2009 announcing that the report had been completed, that Wilson, in recommending that the government stick with only permitting the CIA to use Army Field Manual techniques, had asked it whether the agency wanted to use anything else and the agency had not come up with anything.

Another was the fact, obscured in the press release, that the task force had weighed whether to bar the C.I.A. from transferring detainees to certain countries where they might be abused before deciding to stick with the status quo policy of permitting such transfers on a case-by-case basis subject to assurances of humane treatment.

And a third was its treatment of the famous Appendix M to the Army Field Manual, which permits separating a detainee from other prisoners, in light of criticism that it might be intended to permit a form of torture (sensory/sleep deprivation). I wrote:

In my many discussions with Obama-era officials, I have found no sign of any cynical conspiracy to leave the door open to torture when limiting interrogators to techniques in the field manual. But, of course, people might have been misleading me or ignorant of what was happening on the ground. In that light, it is interesting to see how Wilson’s task force report, with the candor of not having been written for public consumption, handled the issue. It says only “Experienced interrogators believe that separation of a high-value detainee from other detainees is often essential to effective interrogation and that the U.S. government should maintain a detention capability that allows control of the detention environment to support intelligence collection.”

The fact that Wilson’s report did not spot appendix M as a potential loophole for inhumane interrogations suggests that there was no policymaker-level intention to use it that way, though it is not definitive proof. As of this writing, there is no public evidence that the government has ever invoked the minimum-sleep rule in appendix M during the Obama era. The available information remains incomplete.

So now that part of the Freedom of Information Act case is moot and readers can judge for themselves whether my account of the report hit the mark. Here it is: