Surveillance We Can Live With
President Bush's electronic surveillance program has been a festering sore on our body politic since it was publicly disclosed last December. Civil libertarians, myself included, have insisted that the program must be subject to judicial review to ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment.
The president has insisted that he was acting lawfully within his constitutional responsibilities. On its face, the program seems contrary to the plain text of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which regulates domestic national security wiretapping. The president argues, however, that his inherent constitutional powers supersede the statute. Without knowing the exact contours of the program, it's impossible to say whether he is right or wrong. But three federal appeals court decisions suggest the president may be right.
The integrity of our nation's adherence to the rule of law requires an answer to the question of whether this program is legal. The protection of our nation's security and individual rights requires a modification of the program if it is not lawful as currently fashioned. The challenge, which I have been trying to meet legislatively, is to structure a procedure under which the courts can adjudicate the lawfulness of this highly sensitive program while maintaining the secrecy the president contends is so important.
My bill, the result of months of negotiation with the administration, accomplishes this goal by authorizing consideration of the program by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the court created under FISA to consider warrant applications. The FISC has the expertise to handle this question. Its closed proceedings and unblemished record for not leaking would make full consideration both possible and secure. Not only would the bill permit a determination of the program's legality but if it were found unlawful in whole or in part, a framework would exist for modifying the program.
Critics complain that the bill acknowledges the president's inherent Article II power and does not insist on FISA's being the exclusive procedure for the authorization of wiretapping. They are wrong. The president's constitutional power either exists or does not exist, no matter what any statute may say. If the appellate court precedents cited above are correct, FISA is not the exclusive procedure. If the president's assertion of inherent executive authority meets the Fourth Amendment's "reasonableness" test, it provides an alternative legal basis for surveillance, however FISA may purport to limit presidential power. The bill does not accede to the president's claims of inherent presidential power; that is for the courts either to affirm or reject. It merely acknowledges them, to whatever extent they may exist.
The negotiations with administration officials and the president himself were fierce. The president understandably rejected a statutory mandate to submit his program to FISC, on the grounds that such a mandate could weaken the presidency institutionally by binding his successors. Indeed, such a mandate might not withstand a future president's contention that it unconstitutionally limited his Article II powers to conduct surveillance without court approval. The president, however, did personally commit to submitting this program for court review should the bill pass. Even without a legal mandate, his sending this program to the FISC would be a powerful precedent to be considered by future presidents.
President Bush's record of seeking to expand Article II power has been a hallmark of his administration. The president and vice president have vociferously argued that the administration had the authority for the program without any judicial review. Bush's personal commitment to submit his program to FISC is therefore a major breakthrough.
It is a preeminently fair compromise to condition that commitment on congressional approval of the negotiated legislation, which also modernizes FISA in important ways, giving the president added flexibility in protecting the country. The bill extends from three days to seven the time, in emergency situations, that the government can conduct surveillance without the court's permission. It permits the attorney general to delegate his authority to seek emergency warrants to subordinate officials. And it exempts from FISA's jurisdiction communications between two persons overseas that gets routed through domestic servers. The bill would also transfer the various lawsuits challenging the program to the FISC for consideration under its secure procedures.
In my opinion, it is intolerable to let this matter drift indefinitely. If someone has a better idea for legislation that would resolve the program's legality or can negotiate a better compromise with the president, I will be glad to listen.
The writer is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.