Republicans Attempt Retroactive Legalization of Warrantless Wiretapping

Republicans plan to spend the fall trying to use 9/11 for political gain, including to pass legislation retroactively permitting Bush’s warrantless wiretapping. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on S.2453, the “National Security Surveillance Act” written by Dick Cheney and Arlen Specter. The House Judiciary Committee is also expected to consider a companion bill, H.R. 5825. The bills would gut the civil liberties protections present in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Fourth Amendment. The bills:

  • Allow the NSA to examine international phone conversations and e-mails of American residents and businesses, without any judicial approval and without any evidence the target is conspiring with al Qaeda
  • Authorize warrantless physical searches of Americans’ homes and businesses without any judicial check
  • Allow for the electronic surveillance of Americans without the warrants needed to protect the individual rights of people in the US.

As Bush’s activities have come under attack from the courts, and some Republicans as well as Democrats, the Republican leadership hopes to push through these acts to legalize actions which likely were illegal when committed.

In recent years the United States has gone through crises including World War II and the Cold War while managing to maintain the rule of law. Even when their were some abuses, these were limited to a specific time frame. It is more important that we preserve the rule of law in the face of what can become a perpetual state of war against terrorism. This is a war which has no clear end point and which would provide a never ending justification for suspension of civil liberties if we allow this. I recently cited one article which predicted that we will achieve victory “three or four decades into the future.” If we give up our liberties for such a period, it is doubtful they will ever be restored.

Previous posts on the warrantless wiretaps under the fold.

Prominent Conservative Joins Criticism of Bush on Wiretaps

Posted by Ron Chusid
February 3rd, 2006 @ 9:36 am

While the White House tries to spin the controversy over George Bush’s illegal wiretaps without warrants as a case of Democrats objecting, yet another prominent Republican has come out against the activity: Grover Norquist. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the growing bipartisan opposition:

Bush and his senior officials have defended the wiretaps as essential in a time of war, while many White House and GOP officials have attempted to characterize opposition as coming mostly from partisan Democrats critical of the war in Iraq. In a speech to the Republican National Committee last Friday, Karl Rove, the president’s chief strategist, accused Democrats of making “wild and reckless and false charges” on the wiretap issue.

But, in fact, a number of prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have criticized Bush and the wiretapping without court warrants as a violation of the law and basic civil liberties. So have other well-known conservatives, including former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia. Bruce Fein, a lawyer who worked in the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in a commentary in the Washington Times last week that Bush should face “possible impeachment” if the practice is not stopped.

“There have been as many Republicans as Democrats who’ve spoken out on the issue,” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Tuesday as he stated that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he heads, will begin hearings on the matter on Feb. 6.

The article concentrates on the actions of Larry Diamond, a Democrat, and a surprising Republican opponent of the wiretaps:

Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, says he knows some fellow conservatives have labeled him a traitor for condemning the same administration that instituted the biggest tax cuts in recent American history ­ cuts for which Norquist vigorously lobbied. But an even greater disloyalty, Norquist responds, would be to allow what he regards as the trampling on civil liberties to go unimpeded.

“The president’s friends are exactly who you want telling him this,” said Norquist. “No one else has the credibility. We are being team players by telling him, not by keeping quiet.”

Norquist said one of his main concerns is that, once the government becomes so intrusive, there is no way to prevent continued erosion of individual rights.

“Even if you believed an angel was making these decisions, and that’s not what I’m saying, at some point the person in the White House will change,” he said. “Hillary Clinton might be making these decisions.”

While I don’t see Hillary Clinton as being any less trustworthy making these decisions than Bush, Norquist is correct in the underlying principle that once Constitutional checks and balances are removed there is the risk of further erosion of individual rights.

Another Key Republican Protests Bush Wiretaps

Posted by Ron Chusid
February 7th, 2006 @ 9:15 pm

The New York Times reports on yet another Republican who isn’t going along with George Bush’s illegal use of warrantless wiretaps:

A House Republican whose subcommittee oversees the National Security Agency broke ranks with the White House on Tuesday and called for a full Congressional inquiry into the Bush administration’s domestic eavesdropping program.

The lawmaker, Representative Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico, chairwoman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, said in an interview that she had “serious concerns” about the surveillance program. By withholding information about its operations from many lawmakers, she said, the administration has deepened her apprehension about whom the agency is monitoring and why.

Ms. Wilson, who was a National Security Council aide in the administration of President Bush’s father, is the first Republican on either the House’s Intelligence Committee or the Senate’s to call for a full Congressional investigation into the program, in which the N.S.A. has been eavesdropping without warrants on the international communications of people inside the United States believed to have links with terrorists.

The congresswoman’s discomfort with the operation appears to reflect deepening fissures among Republicans over the program’s legal basis and political liabilities. Many Republicans have strongly backed President Bush’s power to use every tool at his disposal to fight terrorism, but 4 of the 10 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced concerns about the program at a hearing where Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified on Monday.

A growing number of Republicans have called in recent days for Congress to consider amending federal wiretap law to address the constitutional issues raised by the N.S.A. operation.

Legal Specialists Refute Bush Claims on Wiretaps

Posted by Ron Chusid
February 2nd, 2006 @ 3:45 pm

The Boston Globe has interviewed legal specialists who have refuted George Bush’s claims in the State of the Union that his warrantless wiretaps were legal. They have also refuted other claims Bush made, such as that other Presidents have done the same has him:

Bush’s contention that past presidents did the same thing as he has done ‘’is either intentionally misleading or downright false,” said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor. Only Bush has made the assertion that his wartime powers should supersede an act of Congress, Cole said.

They also refuted the claims that this program has shown benefits, or could have prevented the 9/11 attacks:

For example, Bush strongly implied that if his program had been in place before the terrorist attacks, the government would have identified two of the hijackers who were placing international calls from inside the United States.

But the 9/11 Commission found that the government had already grown suspicious about both of the hijackers in question before the attacks took place. Bureaucratic failures to share information about the hijackers, not ignorance of their existence, was the problem, the commission said.

Warrantless Wiretaps Also Possible on Domestic Calls

Posted by Ron Chusid
April 7th, 2006 @ 7:14 am

While some defenders of Bush saw nothing wrong with warrantless wiretaps of international calls, a statement from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales shows what can happen when rule of law is eroded:

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales left open the possibility yesterday that President Bush could order warrantless wiretaps on telephone calls occurring solely within the United States — a move that would dramatically expand the reach of a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program.

In response to a question from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) during an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Gonzales suggested that the administration could decide it was legal to listen in on a domestic call without supervision if it were related to al-Qaeda.

“I’m not going to rule it out,” Gonzales said.

In the past, Gonzales and other officials refused to say whether they had the legal authority to conduct warrantless eavesdropping on domestic calls, and have stressed that the NSA eavesdropping program is focused only on international communications.

First it was international calls. Now it may be domestic calls if related to al Qaeda. If this is allowed, next the Executive Branch will be claiming the right to domestic wiretaps whenever they claim any national security need without any oversight.

Feingold Calls for Censure of Bush

Posted by Ron Chusid
March 12th, 2006 @ 11:37 am

Russ Feingold has called for censure of George Bush for the NSA warrantless wiretaps:

In an exclusive interview on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold called on the Senate to publicly admonish President Bush for approving domestic wiretaps on American citizens without first seeking a legally required court order.

“This conduct is right in the strike zone of the concept of high crimes and misdemeanors,” said Feingold, D-Wis., a three-term senator and potential presidential contender.

He said President Bush had, “openly and almost thumbing his nose at the American people,” continued the NSA domestic wiretap program.

This naturally received considerable support in the liberal blogosphere. I can’t help but wonder if John Kerry had said this if some of the same bloggers would be attacking him for not calling for all out impeachment.

Bill Frist, who kept his Presidential hopes just barely alive while McCain’s front runner status received a serious blow, has defended Bush.

Clinton Didn’t Use Warrantless Wiretaps

Posted by Ron Chusid
January 13th, 2006 @ 8:34 am

Bill Clinton did not order wiretaps without a warrant as George Bush has:

Former President Clinton said Thursday that he never ordered wiretaps of American citizens without obtaining a court order, as President Bush has acknowledged he has done.

Clinton, in an interview broadcast Thursday on the ABC News program ‘’Nightline,’’ said his administration either received court approval before authorizing a wiretap or went to court within three days after to get permission, as required by law.

‘’We either went there and asked for the approval or, if there was an emergency and we had to do it beforehand, then we filed within three days afterward and gave them a chance to second guess it,’’ Clinton told ABC. (Video)

Bush Denied Wiretaps, Ignored FISA Court

Posted by Ron Chusid
December 27th, 2005 @ 8:15 am

As I read more on the Bush wiretaps, things are making more sense–and looking worse and worse for Bush. My initial impression was that Bush was needlessly ignoring the law as, in the post 9/11 climate, I wouldn’t expect him to have much trouble getting any wire taps he wanted approved by the conservatives appointed to the FISA court.

It looks like I was wrong on this. Hearst newspapers reviewed the Bush administration’s wiretap requests to the FISA court and found that they modified far more requests from the Bush adminstration than from the previous four administrations combined. The court modified only two search warrant orders out of the 13,102 applications approved over the first 22 years since the court was formed. Since 2001 they modified 179 of the 5,645 requests for surveillance by the Bush administration. The judges also rejected or deferred at least six requests for warrants during 2003 and 2004. Prior to Bush taking office the court had never outright rejected a request for a wiretap.

It looks like the Bush administration had requests for wiretaps refused or modified, and therefore decided to just ignore the FISA court.

Barons Calls For Investigation of The Impeachment of George Bush

Posted by Ron Chusid
December 24th, 2005 @ 9:05 am

While some in the right wing blogosphere are willing to excuse any abuse of power by George Bush, many other conservatives have realized he has gone too far. Bush is finally at risk of losing his base. When Barons is talking about impeachment, it is time for everyone, left and right, to acknowledge that the man is a criminal who does deserve to be removed from office. Following is their editorial (emphasis mine):

Unwarranted Executive Power
The pursuit of terrorism does not authorize the president to make up new laws

AS THE YEAR WAS DRAWING TO A CLOSE, we picked up our New York Times and learned that the Bush administration has been fighting terrorism by intercepting communications in America without warrants. It was worrisome on its face, but in justifying their actions, officials have made a bad situation much worse: Administration lawyers and the president himself have tortured the Constitution and extracted a suspension of the separation of powers.

It was not a shock to learn that shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct intercepts of international phone calls to and from the United States. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act permits the government to gather the foreign communications of people in the U.S. — without a warrant if quick action is important. But the law requires that, within 72 hours, investigators must go to a special secret court for a retroactive warrant.

The USA Patriot Act permits some exceptions to its general rules about warrants for wiretaps and searches, including a 15-day exception for searches in time of war. And there may be a controlling legal authority in the Sept. 14, 2001, congressional resolution that authorized the president to go after terrorists and use all necessary and appropriate force. It was not a declaration of war in a constitutional sense, but it may have been close enough for government work.

Certainly, there was an emergency need after the Sept. 11 attacks to sweep up as much information as possible about the chances of another terrorist attack. But a 72-hour emergency or a 15-day emergency doesn’t last four years.

In that time, Congress has extensively debated the rules on wiretaps and other forms of domestic surveillance. Administration officials have spent many hours before many committees urging lawmakers to provide them with great latitude. Congress acted, and the president signed.

Now the president and his lawyers are claiming that they have greater latitude. They say that neither the USA Patriot Act nor the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act actually sets the real boundary. The administration is saying the president has unlimited authority to order wiretaps in the pursuit of foreign terrorists, and that the Congress has no power to overrule him.

“We also believe the president has the inherent authority under the Constitution, as commander-in-chief, to engage in this kind of activity,” said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Department of Justice made a similar assertion as far back as 2002, saying in a legal brief: “The Constitution vests in the president inherent authority to conduct warrantless intelligence surveillance (electronic or otherwise) of foreign powers or their agents, and Congress cannot by statute extinguish that Constitutional authority.” Gonzales last week declined to declassify relevant legal reviews made by the Department of Justice.

Perhaps they were researched in a Star Chamber? Putting the president above the Congress is an invitation to tyranny. The president has no powers except those specified in the Constitution and those enacted by law. President Bush is stretching the power of commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy by indicating that he can order the military and its agencies, such as the National Security Agency, to do whatever furthers the defense of the country from terrorists, regardless of whether actual force is involved.

Surely the “strict constructionists” on the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary eventually will point out what a stretch this is. The most important presidential responsibility under Article II is that he must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” That includes following the requirements of laws that limit executive power. There’s not much fidelity in an executive who debates and lobbies Congress to shape a law to his liking and then goes beyond its writ.

Willful disregard of a law is potentially an impeachable offense. It is at least as impeachable as having a sexual escapade under the Oval Office desk and lying about it later. The members of the House Judiciary Committee who staged the impeachment of President Clinton ought to be as outraged at this situation. They ought to investigate it, consider it carefully and report either a bill that would change the wiretap laws to suit the president or a bill of impeachment.

It is important to be clear that an impeachment case, if it comes to that, would not be about wiretapping, or about a possible Constitutional right not to be wiretapped. It would be about the power of Congress to set wiretapping rules by law, and it is about the obligation of the president to follow the rules in the Acts that he and his predecessors signed into law.

Some ancillary responsibility, however, must be attached to those members of the House and Senate who were informed, inadequately, about the wiretapping and did nothing to regulate it. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, told Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003 that he was “unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities.” But the senator was so respectful of the administration’s injunction of secrecy that he wrote it out in longhand rather than give it to someone to type. Only last week, after the cat was out of the bag, did he do what he should have done in 2003 — make his misgivings public and demand more information.

Published reports quote sources saying that 14 members of Congress were notified of the wiretapping. If some had misgivings, apparently they were scared of being called names, as the president did last week when he said: “It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.”

Wrong. If we don’t discuss the program and the lack of authority for it, we are meeting the enemy — in the mirror.

From the Salon War Room

Posted by Ron Chusid
December 20th, 2005 @ 10:51 pm

Did Bush lie about wiretaps to cover up his spying program?

Sometimes we wonder why the White House maintains a Web site, let alone one where it’s awfully easy to search prior statements and speeches for “gotcha” moments. Once George W. Bush admitted that he signed an executive order authorizing warrantless wiretaps on American citizens, it didn’t take the blogosphere long to find statements from the past in which Bush seemed to insist that he never did any such thing.

At an event aimed at talking up the Patriot Act in April 2004, Bush addressed the question of wiretaps. “Now, by the way,” he said, “any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires — a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so. It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think ‘Patriot Act,’ constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.”

That certainly seems to be different from what Bush is saying now — that over the past three years, he has authorized and repeatedly reauthorized the “interception” of communications without warrants. John Kerry, among others, wants an explanation. In a statement issued today, the once-and-future Democratic presidential candidate said that prior statements by Bush and Dick Cheney “no doubt were designed to leave the impression with Americans that the government wasn’t authorizing the wiretapping of our own citizens without any warrant or oversight by a court,” when in fact it was doing just that.
Was Bush lying when he said “nothing” had “changed” and suggested that his administration was continuing to obtain warrants for its wiretaps? Maybe, but maybe he was just choosing his words carefully. We still don’t know much about the secret spying program the president authorized. And, as many commentators have pointed out, the program could have involved some sort of widespread communications monitoring or data mining rather than simple “wiretaps,” at least as that term is commonly understood. The repeated references to “technical” issues — in the New York Times report, in the defenses mounted by administration officials, in the extraordinary letter Jay Rockefeller sent to Dick Cheney — suggest that there’s something more than garden-variety listening in going on here.

That’s the kind of thing that a congressional investigation could and should uncover. As Kerry said today, “Congress needs a full accounting and real oversight, not executive power run amok without checks and balances and Congress kept in the dark. Americans deserve an honest debate, not more misleading talk, not another public relations offensive when our security and our constitutional rights hang in the balance.”

In a message to supporters today, Howard Dean put it even more bluntly. “We need to know whether George Bush went beyond the limits of the law, and whether he and his administration believe that there are any limits at all.” In pushing for the release of documents related to the spying program, Dean invoked memories of Richard Nixon, who once said: “If the president does it, it can’t be illegal.” Nixon learned the hard way that his ideas about the law weren’t necessarily true. “This administration,” Dean says, “may need a reminder.”

FISA Court and House Committee Question Bush Wiretaps Without Warrants

Posted by Ron Chusid
January 5th, 2006 @ 12:56 pm

Some in the U.S. government are not buying George Bush’s claims that “L’Etat, c’est moi” and are looking to hold him accountable. The Washington Post reports that members of the FISA Court are seeking answers:

The members of a secret federal court that oversees government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases are scheduled to receive a classified briefing Monday from top Justice Department and intelligence officials about a controversial warrantless-eavesdropping program, according to sources familiar with the arrangements.

Several judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said they want to hear directly from administration officials why President Bush believed he had the authority to order, without the court’s permission, wiretapping of some phone calls and e-mails after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Of serious concern to several judges is whether any information gleaned from intercepts by the National Security Agency was later used to gain their permission for wiretaps without the source being disclosed.

We’ve previously reported on how George Bush was the first President to have requests for wiretaps denied by the conservative appointees to this court and about the resignation in protest by one judge.

As noted here earlier from another source, the Washington Post also reports that another member of Congress has raised questions:

Yesterday, Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, sent a letter to Bush charging that the limited nature of congressional briefings on the monitoring program violated the National Security Act. The White House informed the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees and the two ranking Democrats about the program.

The National Security Act requires the president to keep all members of the two committees fully informed of intelligence activities with the exception of those conducted covertly overseas. “In my view, failure to provide briefings to the full congressional intelligence committees is a continuing violation of the National Security Act,” Harman wrote.

Legal Experts Argue Bush Spying Was Illegal

Posted by Ron Chusid
January 10th, 2006 @ 1:37 pm

Legal opinion on the illegality of Bush’s domestic surveillance (hat tip to Geoffrey R. Stone at Huffington Post):

Dear Members of Congress:

We are scholars of constitutional law and former government officials. We write in our individual capacities as citizens concerned by the Bush Administration’s National Security Agency domestic spying program, as reported in the New York Times, and in particular to respond to the Justice Department’s December 22, 2005 letter to the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees setting forth the administration’s defense of the program. Although the program’s secrecy prevents us from being privy to all of its details, the Justice Department’s defense of what it concedes was secret and warrantless electronic surveillance of persons within the United States fails to identify any plausible legal authority for such surveillance. Accordingly the program appears on its face to violate existing law.

The basic legal question here is not new. In 1978, after an extensive investigation of the privacy violations associated with foreign intelligence surveillance programs, Congress and the President enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Pub. L. 95-511, 92 Stat. 1783. FISA comprehensively regulates electronic surveillance within the United States, striking a careful balance between protecting civil liberties and preserving the “vitally important government purpose” of obtaining valuable intelligence in order to safeguard national security. S. Rep. No. 95-604, pt. 1, at 9 (1977).

With minor exceptions, FISA authorizes electronic surveillance only upon certain specified showings, and only if approved by a court. The statute specifically allows for warrantless wartime domestic electronic surveillance–but only for the first fifteen days of a war. 50 U.S.C. § 1811. It makes criminal any electronic surveillance not authorized by statute, id. § 1809; and it expressly establishes FISA and specified provisions of the federal criminal code (which govern wiretaps for criminal investigation) as the “exclusive means by which electronic surveillance … may be conducted,” 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f) (emphasis added).

The Department of Justice concedes that the NSA program was not authorized by any of the above provisions. It maintains, however, that the program did not violate existing law because Congress implicitly authorized the NSA program when it enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al Qaeda, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 (2001). But the AUMF cannot reasonably be construed to implicitly authorize warrantless electronic surveillance in the United States during wartime, where Congress has expressly and specifically addressed that precise question in FISA and limited any such warrantless surveillance to the first fifteen days of war.

The DOJ also invokes the President’s inherent constitutional authority as Commander in Chief to collect “signals intelligence” targeted at the enemy, and maintains that construing FISA to prohibit the President’s actions would raise constitutional questions. But even conceding that the President in his role as Commander in Chief may generally collect signals intelligence on the enemy abroad, Congress indisputably has authority to regulate electronic surveillance within the United States, as it has done in FISA. Where Congress has so regulated, the President can act in contravention of statute only if his authority is exclusive, and not subject to the check of statutory regulation. The DOJ letter pointedly does not make that extraordinary claim.

Moreover, to construe the AUMF as the DOJ suggests would itself raise serious constitutional questions under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has never upheld warrantless wiretapping within the United States. Accordingly, the principle that statutes should be construed to avoid serious constitutional questions provides an additional reason for concluding that the AUMF does not authorize the President’s actions here.


The DOJ concedes (Letter at 4) that the NSA program involves “electronic surveillance,” which is defined in FISA to mean the interception of the contents of telephone, wire, or email communications that occur, at least in part, in the United States. 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801(f)(1)-(2), 1801(n). NSA engages in such surveillance without judicial approval, and apparently without the substantive showings that FISA requires–e.g., that the subject is an “agent of a foreign power.” Id. § 1805(a). The DOJ does not argue that FISA itself authorizes such electronic surveillance; and, as the DOJ letter acknowledges, 18 U.S.C. § 1809 makes criminal any electronic surveillance not authorized by statute.

The DOJ nevertheless contends that the surveillance is authorized by the AUMF, signed on September 18, 2001, which empowers the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force against” al Qaeda. According to the DOJ, collecting “signals intelligence” on the enemy, even if it involves tapping U.S. phones without court approval or probable cause, is a “fundamental incident of war” authorized by the AUMF. This argument fails for four reasons.

First, and most importantly, the DOJ’s argument rests on an unstated general “implication” from the AUMF that directly contradicts express and specific language in FISA. Specific and “carefully drawn” statutes prevail over general statutes where there is a conflict. Morales v. TWA, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 384-85 (1992) (quoting International Paper Co. v. Ouelette, 479 U.S. 481, 494 (1987)). In FISA, Congress has directly and specifically spoken on the question of domestic warrantless wiretapping, including during wartime, and it could not have spoken more clearly.

As noted above, Congress has comprehensively regulated all electronic surveillance in the United States, and authorizes such surveillance only pursuant to specific statutes designated as the “exclusive means by which electronic surveillance . . . and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted.” 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f) (emphasis added). Moreover, FISA specifically addresses the question of domestic wiretapping during wartime. In a provision entitled “Authorization during time of war,” FISA dictates that “[n]otwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for a period not to exceed fifteen calendar days following a declaration of war by the Congress.” 50 U.S.C. § 1811 (emphasis added). Thus, even where Congress has declared war–a more formal step than an authorization such as the AUMF–the law limits warrantless wiretapping to the first fifteen days of the conflict. Congress explained that if the President needed further warrantless surveillance during wartime, the fifteen days would be sufficient for Congress to consider and enact further authorization. Rather than follow this course, the President acted unilaterally and secretly in contravention of FISA’s terms. The DOJ letter remarkably does not even mention FISA’s fifteen-day war provision, which directly refutes the President’s asserted “implied” authority.

In light of the specific and comprehensive regulation of FISA, especially the fifteen-day war provision, there is no basis for finding in the AUMF’s general language implicit authority for unchecked warrantless domestic wiretapping. As Justice Frankfurter stated in rejecting a similar argument by President Truman when he sought to defend the seizure of the steel mills during the Korean War on the basis of implied congressional authorization: “It is one thing to draw an intention of Congress from general language and to say that Congress would have explicitly written what is inferred, where Congress has not addressed itself to a specific situation. It is quite impossible, however, when Congress did specifically address itself to a problem, as Congress did to that of seizure, to find secreted in the interstices of legislation the very grant of power which Congress consciously withheld. To find authority so explicitly withheld is … to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between President and Congress.” Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 609 (1952) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).

Second, the DOJ’s argument would require the conclusion that Congress implicitly and sub silentio repealed 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f), the provision that identifies FISA and specific criminal code provisions as “the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance . . . may be conducted.” Repeals by implication are strongly disfavored; they can be established only by “overwhelming evidence,” J.E.M. Ag. Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int’l, Inc., 534 U.S. 124, 137 (2001), and “‘the only permissible justification for a repeal by implication is when the earlier and later statutes are irreconcilable,’” id. at 141-142 (quoting Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535, 550 (1974)). The AUMF and § 2511(2)(f) are not irreconcilable, and there is no evidence, let alone overwhelming evidence, that Congress intended to repeal § 2511(2)(f).

Third, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has admitted that the administration did not seek to amend FISA to authorize the NSA spying program because it was advised that Congress would reject such an amendment. The administration cannot argue on the one hand that Congress authorized the NSA program in the AUMF, and at the same time that it did not ask Congress for such authorization because it feared Congress would say no.

Finally, the DOJ’s reliance upon Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004), to support its reading of the AUMF, see DOJ Letter at 3, is misplaced. A plurality of the Court in Hamdi held that the AUMF authorized military detention of enemy combatants captured on the battlefield abroad as a “fundamental incident of waging war.” Id. at 519. The plurality expressly limited this holding to individuals who were “part of or supporting forces hostile to the United States or coalition partners in Afghanistan and who engaged in an armed conflict against the United States there.” Id. at 516 (emphasis added). It is one thing, however, to say that foreign battlefield capture of enemy combatants is an incident of waging war that Congress intended to authorize. It is another matter entirely to treat unchecked warrantless domestic spying as included in that authorization, especially where an existing statute specifies that other laws are the “exclusive means” by which electronic surveillance may be conducted and provides that even a declaration of war authorizes such spying only for a fifteen-day emergency period.


The DOJ argues that FISA and the AUMF should be construed to permit the NSA program’s domestic surveillance because otherwise there might be a “conflict between FISA and the President’s Article II authority as Commander-in-Chief.” DOJ Letter at 4. The statutory scheme described above is not ambiguous, and therefore the constitutional avoidance doctrine is not even implicated. See United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Coop., 532 U.S. 483, 494 (2001) (the “canon of constitutional avoidance has no application in the absence of statutory ambiguity”). But were it implicated, it would work against the President, not in his favor. Construing FISA and the AUMF according to their plain meanings raises no serious constitutional questions regarding the President’s duties under Article II. Construing the AUMF to permit unchecked warrantless wiretapping without probable cause, however, would raise serious questions under the Fourth Amendment.

A. FISA’s Limitations Are Consistent with the President’s Article II Role

We do not dispute that, absent congressional action, the President might have inherent constitutional authority to collect “signals intelligence” about the enemy abroad. Nor do we dispute that, had Congress taken no action in this area, the President might well be constitutionally empowered to conduct domestic surveillance directly tied and narrowly confined to that goal–subject, of course, to Fourth Amendment limits. Indeed, in the years before FISA was enacted, the federal law involving wiretapping specifically provided that “[n]othing contained in this chapter or in section 605 of the Communications Act of 1934 shall limit the constitutional power of the President . . . to obtain foreign intelligence information deemed essential to the security of the United States.” 18 U.S.C. § 2511(3) (1976).

But FISA specifically repealed that provision. FISA § 201(c), 92 Stat. 1797, and replaced it with language dictating that FISA and the criminal code are the “exclusive means” of conducting electronic surveillance. In doing so, Congress did not deny that the President has constitutional power to conduct electronic surveillance for national security purposes; rather, Congress properly concluded that “even if the President has the inherent authority in the absence of legislation to authorize warrantless electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes, Congress has the power to regulate the conduct of such surveillance by legislating a reasonable procedure, which then becomes the exclusive means by which such surveillance may be conducted.” H.R. Rep. No. 95-1283, pt. 1, at 24 (1978) (emphasis added). This analysis, Congress noted, was “supported by two successive Attorneys General.” Id.

To say that the President has inherent authority does not mean that his authority is exclusive, or that his conduct is not subject to statutory regulations enacted (as FISA was) pursuant to Congress’s Article I powers. As Justice Jackson famously explained in his influential opinion in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. at 635 (Jackson, J., concurring), the Constitution “enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity. Presidential powers are not fixed but fluctuate, depending upon their disjunction or conjunction with those of Congress.” For example, the President in his role as Commander in Chief directs military operations. But the Framers gave Congress the power to prescribe rules for the regulation of the armed and naval forces, Art. I, § 8, cl. 14, and if a duly enacted statute prohibits the military from engaging in torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the President must follow that dictate. As Justice Jackson wrote, when the President acts in defiance of “the expressed or implied will of Congress,” his power is “at its lowest ebb.” 343 U.S. at 637. In this setting, Jackson wrote, “Presidential power [is] most vulnerable to attack and in the least favorable of possible constitutional postures.” Id. at 640.

Congress plainly has authority to regulate domestic wiretapping by federal agencies under its Article I powers, and the DOJ does not suggest otherwise. Indeed, when FISA was enacted, the Justice Department agreed that Congress had power to regulate such conduct, and could require judicial approval of foreign intelligence surveillance. FISA does not prohibit foreign intelligence surveillance, but merely imposes reasonable regulation to protect legitimate privacy rights. (For example, although FISA generally requires judicial approval for electronic surveillance of persons within the United States, it permits the executive branch to install a wiretap immediately so long as it obtains judicial approval within 72 hours. 50 U.S.C. § 1805(f).)

Just as the President is bound by the statutory prohibition on torture, he is bound by the statutory dictates of FISA. The DOJ once infamously argued that the President as Commander in Chief could ignore even the criminal prohibition on torture, and, more broadly still, that statutes may not “place any limits on the President’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response.” But the administration withdrew the August 2002 torture memo after it was disclosed, and for good reason the DOJ does not advance these extreme arguments here. Absent a serious question about FISA’s constitutionality, there is no reason even to consider construing the AUMF to have implicitly overturned the carefully designed regulatory regime that FISA establishes. See, e.g., Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 314 n.9 (1993) (constitutional avoidance canon applicable only if the constitutional question to be avoided is a serious one, “not to eliminate all possible contentions that the statute might be unconstitutional”) (emphasis in original; citation omitted).

B. Construing the AUMF to Authorize Warrantless Domestic Wiretapping Would Raise Serious Constitutional Questions

The principle that ambiguous statutes should be construed to avoid serious constitutional questions works against the administration, not in its favor. Interpreting the AUMF and FISA to permit unchecked domestic wiretapping for the duration of the conflict with al Qaeda would certainly raise serious constitutional questions. The Supreme Court has never upheld such a sweeping power to invade the privacy of Americans at home without individualized suspicion or judicial oversight.

The NSA surveillance program permits wiretapping within the United States without either of the safeguards presumptively required by the Fourth Amendment for electronic surveillance–individualized probable cause and a warrant or other order issued by a judge or magistrate. The Court has long held that wiretaps generally require a warrant and probable cause. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). And the only time the Court considered the question of national security wiretaps, it held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits domestic security wiretaps without those safeguards. United States v. United States Dist. Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972). Although the Court in that case left open the question of the Fourth Amendment validity of warrantless wiretaps for foreign intelligence purposes, its precedents raise serious constitutional questions about the kind of open-ended authority the President has asserted with respect to the NSA program. See id. at 316-18 (explaining difficulty of guaranteeing Fourth Amendment freedoms if domestic surveillance can be conducted solely in the discretion of the executive branch).

Indeed, serious Fourth Amendment questions about the validity of warrantless wiretapping led Congress to enact FISA, in order to “provide the secure framework by which the executive branch may conduct legitimate electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes within the context of this nation’s commitment to privacy and individual rights.” S. Rep. No. 95-604, pt. 1, at 15 (1977) (citing, inter alia, Zweibon v, Mitchell, 516 F.2d 594 (D.C. Cir. 1975), in which “the court of appeals held that a warrant must be obtained before a wiretap is installed on a domestic organization that is neither the agent of, nor acting in collaboration with, a foreign power”).

Relying on In re Sealed Case No. 02-001, the DOJ argues that the NSA program falls within an exception to the warrant and probable cause requirement for reasonable searches that serve “special needs” above and beyond ordinary law enforcement. But the existence of “special needs” has never been found to permit warrantless wiretapping. “Special needs” generally excuse the warrant and individualized suspicion requirements only where those requirements are impracticable and the intrusion on privacy is minimal. See, e.g., Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, 873 (1987). Wiretapping is not a minimal intrusion on privacy, and the experience of FISA shows that foreign intelligence surveillance can be carried out through warrants based on individualized suspicion..

The court in Sealed Case upheld FISA itself, which requires warrants issued by Article III federal judges upon an individualized showing of probable cause that the subject is an “agent of a foreign power.” The NSA domestic spying program, by contrast, includes none of these safeguards. It does not require individualized judicial approval, and it does not require a showing that the target is an “agent of a foreign power.” According to Attorney General Gonzales, the NSA may wiretap any person in the United States who so much as receives a communication from anyone abroad, if the administration deems either of the parties to be affiliated with al Qaeda, a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, “working in support of al Qaeda,” or “part of” an organization or group “that is supportive of al Qaeda.” Under this reasoning, a U.S. citizen living here who received a phone call from another U.S. citizen who attends a mosque that the administration believes is “supportive” of al Qaeda could be wiretapped without a warrant. The absence of meaningful safeguards on the NSA program at a minimum raises serious questions about the validity of the program under the Fourth Amendment, and therefore supports an interpretation of the AUMF that does not undercut FISA’s regulation of such conduct.
* *
In conclusion, the DOJ letter fails to offer a plausible legal defense of the NSA domestic spying program. If the Administration felt that FISA was insufficient, the proper course was to seek legislative amendment, as it did with other aspects of FISA in the Patriot Act, and as Congress expressly contemplated when it enacted the wartime wiretap provision in FISA. One of the crucial features of a constitutional democracy is that it is always open to the President–or anyone else–to seek to change the law. But it is also beyond dispute that, in such a democracy, the President cannot simply violate criminal laws behind closed doors because he deems them obsolete or impracticable.

We hope you find these views helpful to your consideration of the legality of the NSA domestic spying program.


Curtis A. Bradley
Richard and Marcy Horvitz Professor of Law, Duke University*
Former Counselor on International Law in the State Department Legal Adviser’s Office, 2004

David Cole
Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center

Walter Dellinger
Douglas Blount Maggs Professor of Law, Duke University
Former Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel,1993-1996
Former Acting Solicitor General of the United States, 1996-97

Ronald Dworkin
Frank Henry Sommer Professor, New York University Law School

Richard Epstein
James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago Law School
Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution

Harold Hongju Koh
Dean and Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law, Yale Law School
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor 1998-2001
Former Attorney-Adviser, Office of Legal Counsel, DOJ, 1983-85

Philip B. Heymann
James Barr Ames Professor, Harvard Law School
Former Deputy Attorney General, 1993-94

Martin S. Lederman
Visiting Professor, Georgetown University Law Center
Former Attorney Advisor, Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, 1994-2002

Beth Nolan
Former Counsel to the President, 1999-2001; Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, 1996-1999; Associate Counsel to the President, 1993-1995; Attorney Advisor, Office of Legal Counsel, 1981-1985

William S. Sessions
Former Director, FBI
Former Chief United States District Judge, Western District of Texas

Geoffrey R. Stone
Harry Kalven, Jr. Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago
Former Dean of the University of Chicago Law School and Provost of the University of Chicago

Kathleen M. Sullivan
Stanley Morrison Professor, Stanford Law School
Former Dean, Stanford Law School

Laurence H. Tribe
Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law
Harvard Law School

William W. Van Alstyne
Lee Professor, William and Mary Law School
Former Attorney, Department of Justice, 1958

The Honeymoon’s Over

Posted by Ron Chusid
December 17th, 2005 @ 7:30 pm

Congress might finally be figuring out what it should have been doing for the past five years. The Washington Post has an article entitled Bush’s Fumbles Spur New Talk of Oversight on Hill:

After a series of embarrassing disclosures, Congress is reconsidering its relatively lenient oversight of the Bush administration.

Lawmakers have been caught by surprise by several recent reports, including the existence of secret U.S. prisons abroad, the CIA’s detention overseas of innocent foreign nationals, and, last week, the discovery that the military has been engaged in domestic spying. After five years in which the GOP-controlled House and Senate undertook few investigations into the administration’s activities, the legislative branch has begun to complain about being in the dark.

On Friday, after learning that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on conversations in the United States, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said that the activity was “wrong and it can’t be condoned at all,” and that his committee “can undertake oversight on it.”

Hopefully this is a sign that the Republicans realize thier failings and we might see some changes:

In an interview last week, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said “it’s a fair comment” that the GOP-controlled Congress has done insufficient oversight and “ought to be” doing more.

“Republican Congresses tend to overinvestigate Democratic administrations and underinvestigate their own,” said Davis, who added that he has tried to pick up some of the slack with his committee. “I get concerned we lose our separation of powers when one party controls both branches.”

Democrats on the committee said the panel issued 1,052 subpoenas to probe alleged misconduct by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party between 1997 and 2002, at a cost of more than $35 million. By contrast, the committee under Davis has issued three subpoenas to the Bush administration, two to the Energy Department over nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, and one last week to the Defense Department over Katrina documents.

It is a sure bet that we will see some changes. With his confession today that he broke the law in authorizing domestic wiretaps without a subpoena, along with the manner in which he tried to hide behind national security concerns, Bush has clearly jumped the shark. Even many Republicans in Congress now realize that unless they begin to do their jobs, and separate themselves from the most disastrous Presidency in American history, they are at risk of losing both houses of Congress.

Be Sociable, Share!

1 Comment

  1. 1
    Andrew Yu-Jen Wang says:

    George W. Bush’s sentence-by-sentence speaking skills are deteriorating. Apparently, this may be due to a mental illness called “presenile dementia.” Bush may or may not be secretly still drinking heavily. Bush lied, and thousands of people died. Bush suffers from narcissism and megalomania. Moreover, Bush has been arrested three times. Bush was arrested for disorderly conduct. Bush was arrested for stealing. Bush was also arrested for a serious crime—driving under the influence of alcohol. Bush unlawfully wiretapped United States citizens. There are reasons to believe that Bush suffers from a learning disability. Bush’s learning disability would explain a lot of things. All in all, Bush is a severely mentally ill individual. Bush is not fit to be the president of the United States.
    Bush should be locked up.
    Submitted by Andrew Yu-Jen Wang
    B.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996
    Messiah College, Grantham, PA

1 Trackbacks

Leave a comment