The Security Threat of Unchecked Presidential Power
This past Thursday, the New York Times exposed the most significant violation of federal surveillance law in the post-Watergate era. President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to engage in domestic spying, wiretapping thousands of Americans and bypassing the legal procedures regulating this activity.
This isn’t about the spying, although that’s a major issue in itself. This is about the Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search. This is about circumventing a teeny tiny check by the judicial branch, placed there by the legislative branch, placed there 27 years ago—on the last occasion that the executive branch abused its power so broadly.
In defending this secret spying on Americans, Bush said that he relied on his constitutional powers (Article 2) and the joint resolution passed by Congress after 9/11 that led to the war in Iraq. This rationale was spelled out in a memo written by John Yoo, a White House attorney, less than two weeks after the attacks of 9/11. It’s a dense read and a terrifying piece of legal contortionism, but it basically says that the president has unlimited powers to fight terrorism. He can spy on anyone, arrest anyone, and kidnap anyone and ship him to another country … merely on the suspicion that he might be a terrorist. And according to the memo, this power lasts until there is no more terrorism in the world.
Yoo starts by arguing that the Constitution gives the president total power during wartime. He also notes that Congress has recently been quiescent when the president takes some military action on his own, citing President Clinton’s 1998 strike against Sudan and Afghanistan.
Yoo then says: “The terrorist incidents of September 11, 2001, were surely far graver a threat to the national security of the United States than the 1998 attacks. … The President’s power to respond militarily to the later attacks must be correspondingly broader.”
This is novel reasoning. It’s as if the police would have greater powers when investigating a murder than a burglary.
More to the point, the congressional resolution of Sept. 14, 2001, specifically refused the White House’s initial attempt to seek authority to preempt any future acts of terrorism, and narrowly gave Bush permission to go after those responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Yoo’s memo ignored this. Written 11 days after Congress refused to grant the president wide-ranging powers, it admitted that “the Joint Resolution is somewhat narrower than the President’s constitutional authority,” but argued “the President’s broad constitutional power to use military force … would allow the President to … [take] whatever actions he deems appropriate … to pre-empt or respond to terrorist threats from new quarters.”
Even if Congress specifically says no.
The result is that the president’s wartime powers, with its armies, battles, victories, and congressional declarations, now extend to the rhetorical “War on Terror”: a war with no fronts, no boundaries, no opposing army, and—most ominously—no knowable “victory.” Investigations, arrests, and trials are not tools of war. But according to the Yoo memo, the president can define war however he chooses, and remain “at war” for as long as he chooses.
This is indefinite dictatorial power. And I don’t use that term lightly; the very definition of a dictatorship is a system that puts a ruler above the law. In the weeks after 9/11, while America and the world were grieving, Bush built a legal rationale for a dictatorship. Then he immediately started using it to avoid the law.
This is, fundamentally, why this issue crossed political lines in Congress. If the president can ignore laws regulating surveillance and wiretapping, why is Congress bothering to debate reauthorizing certain provisions of the Patriot Act? Any debate over laws is predicated on the belief that the executive branch will follow the law.
This is not a partisan issue between Democrats and Republicans; it’s a president unilaterally overriding the Fourth Amendment, Congress and the Supreme Court. Unchecked presidential power has nothing to do with how much you either love or hate George W. Bush. You have to imagine this power in the hands of the person you most don’t want to see as president, whether it be Dick Cheney or Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.
Laws are what give us security against the actions of the majority and the powerful. If we discard our constitutional protections against tyranny in an attempt to protect us from terrorism, we’re all less safe as a result.
This essay was published today as an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Here’s the opening paragraph of the Yoo memo. Remember, think of this power in the hands of your least favorite politician when you read it:
You have asked for our opinion as to the scope of the President’s authority to take military action in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. We conclude that the President has broad constitutional power to use military force. Congress has acknowledged this inherent executive power in both the War Powers Resolution, Pub. L. No. 93-148, 87 Stat. 555 (1973), codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1541-1548 (the “WPR”), and in the Joint Resolution passed by Congress on September 14, 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 (2001). Further, the President has the constitutional power not only to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. Finally, the President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.
There’s a similar reasoning in the Braybee memo, which was written in 2002 about torture:
In a series of opinions examining various legal questions arising after September 11, we have examined the scope of the President’s Commander-in-Chief power. . . . Foremost among the objectives committed by the Constitution to [the President’s] trust. As Hamilton explained in arguing for the Constitution’s adoption, “because the circumstances which may affect the public safety are not reducible within certain limits, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority, which is to provide for the defense and safety of the community, in any manner essential to its efficacy.”
. . . [The Constitution’s] sweeping grant vests in the President an unenumerated Executive power . . . The Commander in Chief power and the President’s obligation to protect the Nation imply the ancillary powers necessary to their successful exercise.
NSA watcher James Bamford points out how this action was definitely considered illegal in 1978, which is why FISA was passed in the first place:
When the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was created in 1978, one of the things that the Attorney General at the time, Griffin Bell, said—he testified before the intelligence committee, and he said that the current bill recognizes no inherent power of the President to conduct electronic surveillance. He said, “This bill specifically states that the procedures in the bill are the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance may be conducted.” In other words, what the President is saying is that he has these inherent powers to conduct electronic surveillance, but the whole reason for creating this act, according to the Attorney General at the time, was to prevent the President from using any inherent powers and to use exclusively this act.
Also this from Salon, discussing a 1952 precedent:
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argues that the president’s authority rests on two foundations: Congress’s authorization to use military force against al-Qaida, and the Constitution’s vesting of power in the president as commander-in-chief, which necessarily includes gathering “signals intelligence” on the enemy. But that argument cannot be squared with Supreme Court precedent. In 1952, the Supreme Court considered a remarkably similar argument during the Korean War. Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, widely considered the most important separation-of-powers case ever decided by the court, flatly rejected the president’s assertion of unilateral domestic authority during wartime. President Truman had invoked the commander-in-chief clause to justify seizing most of the nation’s steel mills. A nationwide strike threatened to undermine the war, Truman contended, because the mills were critical to manufacturing munitions.
The Supreme Court’s rationale for rejecting Truman’s claims applies with full force to Bush’s policy. In what proved to be the most influential opinion in the case, Justice Robert Jackson identified three possible scenarios in which a president’s actions may be challenged. Where the president acts with explicit or implicit authorization from Congress, his authority “is at its maximum,” and will generally be upheld. Where Congress has been silent, the president acts in a “zone of twilight” in which legality “is likely to depend on the imperatives of events and contemporary imponderables rather than on abstract theories of law.” But where the president acts in defiance of “the expressed or implied will of Congress,” Justice Jackson maintained, his power is “at its lowest ebb,” and his actions can be sustained only if Congress has no authority to regulate the subject at all.
In the steel seizure case, Congress had considered and rejected giving the president the authority to seize businesses in the face of threatened strikes, thereby placing President Truman’s action in the third of Justice Jackson’s categories. As to the war power, Justice Jackson noted, “The Constitution did not contemplate that the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy will constitute him also Commander in Chief of the country, its industries, and its inhabitants.”
Like Truman, President Bush acted in the face of contrary congressional authority. In FISA, Congress expressly addressed the subject of warrantless wiretaps during wartime, and limited them to the first 15 days after war is declared. Congress then went further and made it a crime, punishable by up to five years in jail, to conduct a wiretap without statutory authorization.
The Attorney General said that the Administration didn’t try to do this legally, because they didn’t think they could get the law passed. But don’t worry, an NSA shift supervisor is acting in the role of a FISC judge:
GENERAL HAYDEN: FISA involves the process—FISA involves marshaling arguments; FISA involves looping paperwork around, even in the case of emergency authorizations from the Attorney General. And beyond that, it’s a little—it’s difficult for me to get into further discussions as to why this is more optimized under this process without, frankly, revealing too much about what it is we do and why and how we do it.
Q If FISA didn’t work, why didn’t you seek a new statute that allowed something like this legally?
ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: That question was asked earlier. We’ve had discussions with members of Congress, certain members of Congress, about whether or not we could get an amendment to FISA, and we were advised that that was not likely to be—that was not something we could likely get, certainly not without jeopardizing the existence of the program, and therefore, killing the program. And that—and so a decision was made that because we felt that the authorities were there, that we should continue moving forward with this program.
Q And who determined that these targets were al Qaeda? Did you wiretap them?
GENERAL HAYDEN: The judgment is made by the operational work force at the National Security Agency using the information available to them at the time, and the standard that they apply—and it’s a two-person standard that must be signed off by a shift supervisor, and carefully recorded as to what created the operational imperative to cover any target, but particularly with regard to those inside the United States.
Q So a shift supervisor is now making decisions that a FISA judge would normally make? I just want to make sure I understand. Is that what you’re saying?
Senators from both parties are demanding hearings:
Democratic and Republican calls mounted on Tuesday for U.S. congressional hearings into President George W. Bush’s assertion that he can order warrantless spying on Americans with suspected terrorist ties.
Vice President Dick Cheney predicted a backlash against critics of the administration’s anti-terrorism policies. He also dismissed charges that Bush overstepped his constitutional bounds when he implemented the recently disclosed eavesdropping shortly after the September 11 attacks.
Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for a joint investigation by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees into whether the government eavesdropped “without appropriate legal authority.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would prefer separate hearings by the Judiciary Committee, which has already promised one, and Intelligence Committee.
This New York Times paragraph is further evidence that we’re talking about an Echelon-like surveillance program here:
Administration officials, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the information, suggested that the speed with which the operation identified “hot numbers” – the telephone numbers of suspects – and then hooked into their conversations lay behind the need to operate outside the old law.
And some more snippets.
There are about a zillion more URLs I could list here. I posted these already, but both Oren Kerr and
Daniel Solove have good discussions of the legal issues. And here are three legal posts by Marty Lederman. A summary of the Republican arguments. Four good blog posts. Spooks comment on the issue.
And this George W. Bush quote (video and transcript), from December 18, 2000, is just too surreal not to reprint: “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”
I guess 9/11 made it a heck of a lot easier.
Look, I don’t think 100% of the blame belongs to President Bush. (This kind of thing was also debated under Clinton.) The Congress, Democrats included, have allowed the Executive to gather power at the expense of the other two branches. This is the fundamental security issue here, and it’ll be an issue regardless of who wins the White House in 2008.
EDITED TO ADD (12/21): FISC Judge James Robertson resigned yesterday:
Two associates familiar with his decision said yesterday that Robertson privately expressed deep concern that the warrantless surveillance program authorized by the president in 2001 was legally questionable and may have tainted the FISA court’s work.
….Robertson indicated privately to colleagues in recent conversations that he was concerned that information gained from warrantless NSA surveillance could have then been used to obtain FISA warrants. FISA court Presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who had been briefed on the spying program by the administration, raised the same concern in 2004 and insisted that the Justice Department certify in writing that it was not occurring.
“They just don’t know if the product of wiretaps were used for FISA warrants—to kind of cleanse the information,” said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the FISA warrants. “What I’ve heard some of the judges say is they feel they’ve participated in a Potemkin court.”
More generally, here’s some of the relevant statutes and decisions:
“Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001),” the law authorizing Bush to use military force against the 9/11 terrorists.
“United States v. United States District Court,” 407 U.S. 297 (1972), a national security surveillance case that turned on the Fourth Amendment.
“Hamdi v. Rumsfeld,” 124 S. Ct. 981 (2004), the recent Supreme Court case examining the president’s powers during wartime.
[The Government’s position] cannot be mandated by any reasonable view of the separation of powers, as this view only serves to condense power into a single branch of government. 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. Youngstown Steel and Tube, 343 U.S. at 587. Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in times of conflict with other Nations or enemy organizations, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.
And here are a bunch of blog posts:
Seth Weinberger: “Declaring War and Executive Power.”
Juliette Kayyem: “Wiretaps, AUMF and Bush’s Comments Today.”
Mark Schmitt: “Alito and the Wiretaps.”
Eric Muller: “Lawless Like I Said.”
Cass Sunstein: “Presidential Wiretap.”
Spencer Overton: “Judge Damon J. Keith: No Warrantless Wiretaps of Citizens.”
Will Baude: “Presidential Authority, A Lament.”
And news articles:
Washington Post: “Clash Is Latest Chapter in Bush Effort to Widen Executive Power.”
The clash over the secret domestic spying program is one slice of a broader struggle over the power of the presidency that has animated the Bush administration. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney came to office convinced that the authority of the presidency had eroded and have spent the past five years trying to reclaim it.
From shielding energy policy deliberations to setting up military tribunals without court involvement, Bush, with Cheney’s encouragement, has taken what scholars call a more expansive view of his role than any commander in chief in decades. With few exceptions, Congress and the courts have largely stayed out of the way, deferential to the argument that a president needs free rein, especially in wartime.
New York Times: Spying Program Snared U.S. Calls.”
A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say.