Did Bush Have the Legal Authority Under FISA to Authorize NSA Surveillance?
Yesterday, I blogged about a startling story in the NY Times about President Bush’s authorizing the NSA to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant or even a court order. According to the NY Times story, the “legal opinions that support the N.S.A. operation remain classified.”
Today in the NY Times is a follow-up story about the legal basis for the President’s actions. According to the story:
[S]ome legal experts outside the administration, including some who served previously in the intelligence agencies, said the administration had pushed the presidential-powers argument beyond what was legally justified or prudent. They say the N.S.A. domestic eavesdropping illustrates the flaws in Mr. Bush’s assertion of his powers.
“Obviously we have to do things differently because of the terrorist threat,” said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, former general counsel of both N.S.A. and the Central Intelligence Agency, who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “But to do it without the participation of the Congress and the courts is unwise in the extreme.” . . .
William C. Banks, a widely respected authority on national security law at Syracuse University, said the N.S.A. revelation came as a shock, even given the administration’s past assertions of presidential powers.
“I was frankly astonished by the story,” he said. “My head is spinning.”
Professor Banks said the president’s power as commander in chief “is really limited to situations involving military force – anything needed to repel an attack. I don’t think the commander in chief power allows” the warrantless eavesdropping, he said. . . .
In engaging in the surveillance, the President may have ignored the legal procedures set forth in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.
The FISA allows the government to engage in electronic surveillance if it obtains a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which meets in secret. The government must demonstrate probable cause that the monitored party is a “foreign power” or an “agent of a foreign power.” 50 U.S.C. § 1801. If the monitored party is a U.S. citizen, however, the goverment must establish probable cause that the party’s activities “may” or “are about to” involve a criminal violation. Id.
FISA even provides procedures for surveillance without court orders. Such surveillance, however, must be “solely directed” at gathering intelligence from “foreign powers” and there must be “no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” 50 U.S.C. § 1802(a). The surveillance authorized by the President, however, involved U.S. citizens, thus making § 1802 unavailable.
FISA also has § 1844, which provides that “the President, through the Attorney general, may authorize the use of a pen register or trap and trace device without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence for a period not to exceed 15 days following a declaration of war by Congress.” 50 U.S.C. § 1844. I don’t know many details about the timing of the surveillance, but regardless of timing, the surveillance appears to have far exceeded the limited authorization in § 1844. The NY Times article suggests that the NSA may have engaged in wiretaps or other forms of electronic eavesdropping extending far beyond pen registers or trap and trace devices, which merely provide information about the phone numbers dialed.
Finally, FISA authorizes electronic surveillance more generally “for a period not to exceed fifteen calendar days following a declaration of war by the Congress.” 50 U.S.C. § 1811. The Administration faces several hurdles in using § 1811. First, it is debatable whether the Authorization to Use Military Force constitutes a declaration of war. For some thoughtful analysis about this, see Seth Weinberger’s post. Second, it depends upon when the surveillance took place. If it was beyond the 15 day period, then the provision no longer applies. Anyway, President Bush has declared that he will continue the surveillance program “for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill American citizens.”
Thus, it appears that the President brushed FISA aside. On what basis can the President ignore a statute specifically regulating executive power? I’m not an expert on the intricacies of the executive’s military powers, so perhaps there’s a justification. Thus far, however, the Bush Administration’s “creative” interpretations of its legal authority to engage in surveillance, to detain enemy combatants, and to engage in torture seem to be just as “creative” as Bill Clinton’s interpretation of what “sex” is.
Apparently, the President does have a legal rationale for his actions, but according to the NY Times article, it is classified. I believe that the President must give a full accounting of how he could believe in good faith this surveillance was within his powers under the law. And please, no more “creativity.”