FISA vs. the Constitution
Congress can't usurp the president's power to spy on America's enemies.

BY ROBERT F. TURNER
Wednesday, December 28, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

In the continuing saga of the surveillance "scandal," with some congressional Democrats denouncing President Bush as a lawbreaker and even suggesting that impeachment hearings may be in order, it is important to step back and put things in historical context. First of all, the Founding Fathers knew from experience that Congress could not keep secrets. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin and his four colleagues on the Committee of Secret Correspondence unanimously concluded that they could not tell the Continental Congress about covert assistance being provided by France to the American Revolution, because "we find by fatal experience that Congress consists of too many members to keep secrets."

When the Constitution was being ratified, John Jay--America's most experienced diplomat and George Washington's first choice to be secretary of state--wrote in Federalist No. 64 that there would be cases in which "the most useful intelligence" may be obtained if foreign sources could be "relieved from apprehensions of discovery," and noted there were many "who would rely on the secrecy of the president, but who would not confide in that of the Senate." He then praised the new Constitution for so distributing foreign-affairs powers that the president would be able "to manage the business of intelligence in such manner as prudence may suggest."

In 1790, when the first session of the First Congress appropriated money for foreign intercourse, the statute expressly required that the president "account specifically for all such expenditures of the said money as in his judgment may be made public, and also for the amount of such expenditures as he may think it advisable not to specify." They made no demand that President Washington share intelligence secrets with them. And in 1818, when a dispute arose over a reported diplomatic mission to South America, the legendary Henry Clay told his House colleagues that if the mission had been provided for from the president's contingent fund, it would not be "a proper subject for inquiry" by Congress.

For nearly 200 years it was understood by all three branches that intelligence collection--especially in wartime--was an exclusive presidential prerogative vested in the president by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, John Marshall and many others recognized that the grant of "executive power" to the president included control over intelligence gathering. It was not by chance that there was no provision for congressional oversight of intelligence matters in the National Security Act of 1947.

Space does not permit a discussion here of the congressional lawbreaking that took place in the wake of the Vietnam War. It is enough to observe that the Constitution is the highest law of the land, and when Congress attempts to usurp powers granted to the president, its members betray their oath of office. In certain cases, such as the War Powers Resolution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, it might well have crossed that line.

Keep in mind that while the Carter administration asked Congress to enact the FISA statute in 1978, Attorney General Griffin Bell emphasized that the law "does not take away the power of the president under the Constitution." And in 1994, when the Clinton administration invited Congress to expand FISA to cover physical as well as electronic searches, the associate attorney general testified: "Our seeking legislation in no way should suggest that we do not believe we have inherent authority" under the Constitution. "We do," she concluded.

I'm not saying that what the president authorized was unquestionably lawful. The Supreme Court in the 1972 "Keith case" held that a warrant was required for national security wiretaps involving purely domestic targets, but expressly distinguished the case from one involving wiretapping "foreign powers" or their agents in this country. In the 1980 Truong case, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the warrantless surveillance of a foreign power, its agent or collaborators (including U.S. citizens) when the "primary purpose" of the intercepts was for "foreign intelligence" rather than law enforcement purposes. Every court of appeals that has considered the issue has upheld an inherent presidential power to conduct warrantless foreign intelligence searches; and in 2002 the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, created by the FISA statute, accepted that "the president does have that authority" and noted "FISA could not encroach on the president's constitutional power."

For constitutional purposes, the joint resolution passed with but a single dissenting vote by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, was the equivalent of a formal declaration of war. The Supreme Court held in 1800 (Bas v. Tingy), and again in 1801 (Talbot v. Seamen), that Congress could formally authorize war by joint resolution without passing a formal declaration of war; and in the post-U.N. Charter era no state has issued a formal declaration of war. Such declarations, in fact, have become as much an anachronism as the power of Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal (outlawed by treaty in 1856). Formal declarations were historically only required when a state was initiating an aggressive war, which today is unlawful.

Section 1811 of the FISA statute recognizes that during a period of authorized war the president must have some authority to engage in electronic surveillance "without a court order." The question is whether Congress had the power to limit such authorizations to a 15-day period, which I think highly doubtful. It would be akin to Congress telling the president during wartime that he could attack a particular enemy stronghold for a maximum of 15 days.

America is at war with a dangerous enemy. Since 9/11, the president, our intelligence services and our military forces have done a truly extraordinary job--taking the war to our enemies and keeping them from conducting a single attack within this country (so far). But we are still very much at risk, and those who seek partisan political advantage by portraying efforts to monitor communications between suspected foreign terrorists and (often unknown) Americans as being akin to Nixon's "enemies lists" are serving neither their party nor their country. The leakers of this sensitive national security activity and their Capitol Hill supporters seem determined to guarantee al Qaeda a secure communications channel into this country so long as they remember to include one sympathetic permanent resident alien not previously identified by NSA or the FBI as a foreign agent on their distribution list.

Ultimately, as the courts have noted, the test is whether the legitimate government interest involved--in this instance, discovering and preventing new terrorist attacks that may endanger tens of thousands of American lives--outweighs the privacy interests of individuals who are communicating with al Qaeda terrorists. And just as those of us who fly on airplanes have accepted intrusive government searches of our luggage and person without the slightest showing of probable cause, those of us who communicate (knowingly or otherwise) with foreign terrorists will have to accept the fact that Uncle Sam may be listening.

Our Constitution is the supreme law, and it cannot be amended by a simple statute like the FISA law. Every modern president and every court of appeals that has considered this issue has upheld the independent power of the president to collect foreign intelligence without a warrant. The Supreme Court may ultimately clarify the competing claims; but until then, the president is right to continue monitoring the communications of our nation's declared enemies, even when they elect to communicate with people within our country.

Mr. Turner, co-founder of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, served as counsel to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, 1982-84.