2005 was already the year of the demagogue, having been dominated for months by the endlessly echoed falsehood that the president "lied us into war." But the year ends with yet another round of demagoguery.
Administration critics, political and media, charge that by ordering surveillance on communications of suspected al Qaeda agents in the United States, the president clearly violated the law. Some even suggest that Bush has thereby so trampled the Constitution that impeachment should now be considered. (Barbara Boxer, Jonathan Alter, John Dean and various luminaries of the left have already begun floating the idea.) The braying herds have already concluded, Tenet-like, that the president's actions were slam-dunk illegal. It takes a superior mix of partisanship, animus and ignorance to say that.
Does the president have the constitutional authority to conduct warrantless searches against suspected foreign agents in the United States? George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr (one critic calls him the man who "literally wrote the book on government seizure of electronic evidence") finds "pretty decent arguments" on both sides, but his own conclusion is that Bush's actions were "probably constitutional."
In 1972 the Supreme Court required the president to obtain warrants to eavesdrop on domestic groups but specifically declined to apply this requirement to snooping on foreign agents. Four appeals courts have since upheld presidential authority for such warrantless searches. Not surprisingly, the executive branch has agreed.
True, Congress tried to restrict this presidential authority with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. It requires that warrants for wiretapping of enemy agents in the United States be obtained from a secret court. But as John Schmidt, associate attorney general in the Clinton administration, wrote: "Every president since FISA's passage has asserted that he retained inherent power to go beyond the act's terms." Indeed, President Bill Clinton's own deputy attorney general testified to Congress that "the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes," then noted a few minutes later that "courts have made no distinction between electronic surveillances and physical searches."
Presidents always jealously guard executive authority. And Congress always wants to challenge the scope of that authority. This tug of war is a bipartisan and constant feature of the American system of separation of powers. President Bush's circumvention of FISA is a classic separation-of-powers dispute in the area in which these powers are most in dispute -- war powers.
Consider the War Powers Resolution passed over Richard Nixon's veto in 1973. It restricts, with very specific timetables, the president's authority to use force. Every president since Nixon, Democrat and Republican, has regarded himself not bound by this law, declaring it an unconstitutional invasion of his authority as commander in chief.
Nor will it do to argue that the Clinton administration ultimately accepted the strictures of the FISA law after a revision was passed. So what? For the past three decades, presidents have adhered to the War Powers Resolution for reasons of prudence, to avoid a constitutional fight with Congress. But they all maintained the inherent illegitimacy of the law and the right to ignore it. Similarly, Clinton's acquiescence to FISA in no way binds future executives to renounce Clinton's claim of "inherent authority" to conduct warrantless searches for purposes of foreign intelligence.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales chose a different justification for these wiretaps: They were covered by the congressional resolution passed shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, authorizing the use of "all necessary and appropriate force" against al Qaeda. Gonzales's interpretation is based on a plurality Supreme Court opinion written by Sandra Day O'Connor that deemed legal the "executive detention" of U.S. citizen and enemy combatant Yaser Esam Hamdi. "Detention" is an obvious element of any authorization to use force. Gonzales argues that so is gathering intelligence about the enemy's plans by intercepting his communications.
I am skeptical of Gonzales's argument -- it implies an almost limitless expansion of the idea of "use of force" -- while the distinguished liberal law professor Cass Sunstein finds it "entirely plausible" (so long as the wiretapping is limited to those reasonably believed to be associated with al Qaeda). Sunstein maintains that "surveillance, including wiretapping, is reasonably believed to be an incident of the use of force" that "standardly occurs during war."
Contrary to the administration, I also believe that as a matter of political prudence and comity with Congress, Bush should have tried to get the law changed rather than circumvent it. This was an error of political judgment. But that does not make it a crime. And only the most brazen and reckless partisan could pretend it is anything approaching a high crime and misdemeanor.