At his news conference last week, President Bush objected when a reporter characterized his use of executive power to eavesdrop on Americans without any court order as "unchecked." The president's sensitivity is understandable. As he went on to explain, the charge of unchecked power implies that he is asserting a kind of dictatorial authority -- precisely what Americans fought, and continue to fight, against in Iraq. But what are the sources of checks and balances of a president's authority? They are the Congress, the courts and, ultimately, the American people. Based on the facts as reported so far, none of these appear to have operated as an effective check on this extraordinary exercise of presidential power.
Ironically, if it is ultimately determined that this domestic surveillance program reflects the exercise of unchecked power in contravention of law, it will wind up weakening the presidency. Once again, we will confront the challenge of restoring Americans' faith in the rule of law and our system of checks and balances. The administration says Congress was briefed "at least a dozen times" in the four years since the wiretap program started. Even assuming that these classified briefings accurately conveyed all relevant facts, it appears that they were limited to only eight of the 535 senators and representatives, under a process that effectively eliminates the possibility of any careful oversight.
As a former legal counsel for both Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, I'm well aware of the limitations of these "gang of eight" sessions. They are provided only to the leadership of the House and Senate and of the intelligence committees, with no staff present. The eight are prohibited from saying anything about the briefing to anyone, including other intelligence panel members. The leaders for whom I worked never discussed the content of these briefings with me.
It is virtually impossible for individual members of Congress, particularly members of the minority party, to take any effective action if they have concerns about what they have heard in one of these briefings. It is not realistic to expect them, working alone, to sort through complex legal issues, conduct the kind of factual investigation required for true oversight and develop an appropriate legislative response.
These gang of eight briefings, while sometimes necessary, should be extremely rare. Under the National Security Act, they are supposed to be limited to situations involving covert actions, and even then only under "extraordinary circumstances." Yet they have occurred with increasing frequency in the last few years.
Before I worked on the intelligence committees, I was a lawyer at the CIA. We understood that congressional oversight was key to maintaining the trust of the American public, which is vital for a secret agency operating in a democracy. True oversight helps clarify the authority under which intelligence professionals operate. And when risky operations are revealed, it is important to have members of Congress reassure the public that they have been overseeing the operation. The briefings reportedly provided on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program reflect, instead, a "check the box" mentality -- allowing administration officials to claim that they had informed Congress without having really achieved the objectives of oversight.
And it is clear that the courts did not have any role in reviewing this assertion of executive authority. Instead of going to a judge on the secret court that was specifically established to authorize foreign intelligence surveillance inside the United States, we are told that an NSA shift supervisor was able to sign off on the warrantless surveillance of Americans. That's neither a check nor a balance. The primary duty of the NSA shift supervisor, who essentially works for the president, is to collect intelligence. The task of the judge is to ensure that the legal standards set out in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have been met. Which one has stronger independence to say no, if no needs to be said?
The objectives of the surveillance program, as described in news reports, seem laudable. The government should be running to ground the contacts listed in a suspected terrorist's cell phone, for example. What is troubling is that this domestic spying is being done in apparent contravention of FISA, for reasons that still are not clear.
FISA anticipates situations in which speed is essential. It allows the government to start eavesdropping without a court order and to keep it going for a maximum of three days. And while the FISA application process is often burdensome in routine cases, it can also move with remarkable speed when necessary, with applications written and approved in just a few hours.
Perhaps the administration did not believe that these wiretaps would meet the FISA standard, which requires the government to have probable cause to believe that the target of the surveillance is an agent of a foreign power, which includes terrorists and spies. Yet, since 2001, FISA judges have reportedly reviewed more than 5,645 applications and rejected only four. The current judges were all hand-picked by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presumably felt that they had the right temperament and expertise to understand the national security imperatives as well as the need to protect civil liberties.
Nevertheless, if administration officials believed they faced a scenario in which the FISA standard could not be met, they could have sought to amend the statute, as they have done several times since the law's enactment in 1978. Several such amendments , for example, were contained in the 2001 Patriot Act.
The administration reportedly did not think it could get an amendment without exposing details of the program. But this is not the first time the intelligence community has needed a change in the law to allow it to undertake sensitive intelligence activities that could not be disclosed. In the past, Congress and the administration have worked together to find a way to accomplish what was needed. It was never previously considered an option to simply decide that finding a legislative solution was too hard and that the executive branch could just ignore the law rather than fix it.
Moreover, the administration has yet to make the case for keeping this significant policy change secret for four years. It's hard to imagine that the terrorists do not already assume that we try to listen to their cell phone conversations (after all, it is well known that FISA allows such wiretaps) or that we have technology to help us search through reams of signals. (Check out the Wikipedia definition of Echelon on the Internet.) So what do the terrorists learn from a general public discussion about the legal authority being relied upon to target their conversations? Presumably very little. What does the American public lose by not having the public discussion? We lose the opportunity to hold our elected leaders accountable for what they do on our behalf.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claims that the NSA program did not violate the law because FISA only requires a warrant "unless otherwise authorized by statute" and that the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, somehow authorized this circumvention of FISA's rules. FISA does provide for criminal penalties if surveillance is conducted under color of law "except as authorized by statute." This is a reference to either FISA or the criminal wiretap statute. A resolution, such as the Use of Force resolution, does not provide statutory authority. Moreover, FISA specifically provides for warrantless surveillance for up to 15 days after a declaration of war. Why would Congress include that provision if a mere Use of Force resolution could render FISA inapplicable?
The law clearly states that the criminal wiretap statute and FISA are "the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance . . . and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted." If these authorities are exclusive, there is no other legal authority that can authorize warrantless surveillance.
Courts generally will not view such a clear statutory statement as having been overruled by a later congressional action unless there is an equally clear indication that Congress intended to do that.
The administration's ultimate argument is that "the president has the inherent authority under the Constitution, as Commander-in-Chief, to engage in this kind of activity." This is the same argument outlined in the infamous torture memo, which concluded that the president can effectively ignore any statute that appears to infringe on this broad authority. That memo was withdrawn after it became public and was roundly criticized. The legal reasoning behind the arguments, however, has never been repudiated and appears to have resurfaced here.
We cannot know for certain how the Supreme Court would rule on the legitimacy of the spying program. However, the court rejected President Harry Truman's similar claim of broad presidential power in seizing control of the nation's steel mills to avert a strike during the Korean War. The court, in a 6-to-3 ruling , stated that the president's inherent authority is at its weakest in areas where Congress has already legislated. It ruled that to find inherent presidential authority when Congress has explicitly withheld that authority -- as it has in FISA -- "is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between president and Congress."
The administration may be counting on fear of another terrorist attack in asserting this unprecedented authority. But if President Bush can simply ignore laws that he thinks are unconstitutional, without getting a court ruling or having genuine consultations with Congress, then why bother to work so hard at getting the Patriot Act provisions right, or the McCain torture amendment, or any other laws related to terrorism? And where does it stop? Justice Sandra Day O'Connor rejected the administration's claim of unchecked power in the 2004 Hamdi case, in which the government argued that the courts could not review the legality of enemy combatant detentions. She wrote, "We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens. . . . Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with . . . enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake."
Now that the existence of this program has been revealed, the FISA judges are finally being briefed and the Senate Judiciary Committee has signaled its intention to hold hearings. Perhaps these co-equal branches will get some more specific answers to important questions like: What legal reasoning was used to justify the program in 2001? What standard is used in this program? Why couldn't FISA be used? If FISA was inadequate in some way, why not seek to amend it? What is the value of the intelligence obtained? Are there other secret programs that the heads of the intelligence committees have not been briefed about?
The rule of law and our system of checks and balances are not a source of weakness or a luxury of peace. As O'Connor reminded us in Hamdi , "It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments . . . that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad."
Suzanne Spaulding is a Washington lawyer. She was general counsel for the Senate and House Intelligence committees, assistant general counsel at the CIA and executive director of the National Terrorism Commission (1999-2000).