Friday, February 03, 2006

Senator Roberts Declares FISA Unconstitutional

Marty Lederman

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, today issued a 19-page letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in which he became (as far as I know) the first member of Congress to opine that the NSA's doemstic wiretapping program is lawful. Senator Roberts's argument is, almost in its entirety, that to the extent FISA purports to provide the "exclusive means" for the President to engage in electronic surveillance -- and Senator Roberts agrees that FISA does so (pp. 10-11) -- FISA is unconstitutional. (For a contrary view, sent to the Congress yesterday by 14 constitutional law professors and former government lawyers, see here.)

Notably, Senator Roberts does not really indulge DOJ's untenable argument that Congress gave the President the authority to override FISA -- and that Congress impliedly repealed the "exclusive means" provision of FISA -- when it enacted the force authorization related to Al Qaeda on September 18, 2001. To be sure, in the Conclusion to his letter, Senator Roberts mentions en passant that he "do[es] not discount" the AUMF argument -- but he doesn't try to defend it in the slightest. Indeed, he does not even suggest that when he himself voted for the AUMF, he intended -- or had any inkling -- that FISA was being overriden and in part repealed. His argument, instead, is that the President's constitutional authorities "should be the beginning and end of our legislative inquiry into the 'legality' of this program. It is quite clear to me that Congress could not, through passage of FISA, extinguish the President’s constitutional authority to conduct the terrorist surveillance program at issue." Senator Roberts concludes (p.13) that the Supreme Court would, "even after FISA, determine that Congress cannot define the 'exclusive means' for the conduct" of the President's electronic surveillance within the United States.

[UPDATE: On a closer read of the letter, something -- or rather, the absence of something -- jumped out at me: There's no argument -- none at all -- about why FISA is unconstitutional. Senator Roberts argues that the President had the constitutional authority to engage in such surveillance prior to FISA; that FISA was specifically designed to limit that Executive authority by statute; that therefore the President's authority is at its "lowest ebb" as described in Justice Jackson's Youngstown concurrence; and that the surveillance in question is very important. But he nowhere explains why the President prevails in the constitutional analysis even at the "lowest ebb." Did I miss an argument in there somewhere to support the "I believe the Supreme Court would recognize" assertion? (In a parenthetical, Roberts suggests that the Court "arguably has recognized" that Congress violated the Constitution by enacting FISA. But his only citation for that suggestion consists of the denials of certiorari in Truong and Butenko, neither of which raised the question of FISA's constitutionality because both cases involved surveillance prior to FISA's enactment.)]

It's a rather remarkable and unusual event when the Chair of a congressional intelligence committee asserts that the landmark framework statute over which his committee has jurisdiction is unconstitutional. But that is what we've seen today. (One wonders why Senator Roberts did not, over the past five years, respond to the several enacted and proposed amendments to FISA, including in the PATRIOT Act, by saying they were unnecessary because FISA cannot limit the President's foreign-terrorism-related electronic surveillance.)

One other important thing about the Roberts letter: He reveals what many of us had suspected -- namely, that one reason the Administration is circumventing FISA is because it is engaged in interceptions that the FISA Court could not approve under the law as currently drafted: "FISA’s burden of proof -– probable cause that [the targeted] individual is an agent of a foreign power -– is higher than the 'reasonableness' the Fourth Amendment requires and does not enable surveillance of all the assistants and collaborators of our enemies that the President should target for intelligence collection."

Now, it should be understood what Roberts is saying here: FISA does not regulate at all the surveillance of "all the assistants and collaborators of our enemies" insofar as the interceptions occur overseas -- even if the communications are with persons in the U.S., NSA may freely intercept those calls (or that's my understanding, anyway). And even if the interception is made here in the U.S., FISA allows for a judicial order upon a showing of probable cause that the person in the United States whose phone or computer is targeted is "an assistant or collaborator of our enemies." Therefore, what's at issue here is (i) the targeting of U.S. persons who are not suspected of being Al Qaeda assistants or collaborators, but who are calling persons overseas who are suspected of being such; and/or (ii) the targeting of U.S. persons who the NSA suspects of being "assistants or collaborators," but where there is not probable cause to believe it.

(By the way, Roberts confirms that "assistant or collarborator" is defined very broadly, to include not only members of Al Qaeda or those who assist in Al Qaeda's terrorist operations, but also persons "affiliated with" Al Qaeda and persons who are members of "organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda." Thus, some of the intercepted calls might not involve any party who is in league with Al Qaeda or who is otherwise even suspected of having had anything to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001.)


That should be Sen Pat Roberts of Kansas.

Thanks, David -- corrected. I must have had Ben Nelson on my mind!

Hmmm...isn't there a book titled -
"What's the matter with Kansas" -

Well now we KNOW! It's got Pat Roberts. *snark*

This is stunning - postively stunning the lengths to which this GOP majority will go to allow this Executive Un-checked and Un-Constitutional POWER.

But, can they really claim it WAS not the LAW at the time of these violations - and excuse the behavior of this President for breaking that law and the potential criminal presecution for same?


There is going to be debate on the Senate floor over this. Roberts' is one partisan view, expressed the week prior to the committee hearing on the matter. Congress will look at the extrapolation over this four-year time curve whereby FISA remained in exile, as it were. Maybe the new more nimble FISC will actually be an application on a Cray sitting alongside the Cray at the snooping agency; just as the snooper Cray uses templates and filters for its datamining app, so could the 'FISC app' mask for ways to vet the warrantless processes underway. Constitution by the microsecond and terraflop. Of course, already we had instant rumor that FISC itself was contemplating self-dissolution based on somewhat similar grounds to Roberts' arguments; though to my knowledge only one jurist resigned from FISC so far, there was a scheduled meeting en banc, as it were to provide input on this very issue

OK, so I go and look on this guy's official website to see if he is even a lawyer. Oooops! Appears that he is a creature of being born into political connections and working as a reporter. But not as a lawyer. Accepting his opinion on legality is like, what, letting a butcher do brain surgery?

Looking ahead, who has the hammer on committee assignments? This guy doesn't belong on "Intelligence."

What makes this so complicated?

There's a statute that says 'Executive, don't do X' -- or more accurately, don't do X without first doing A,B,C.

The president takes an oath to see that the law is faithfully executed.

The president does X -- and without doing A,B,C.

He announces that he has done X, and intends to continue doing X, without doing A,B,C.

How is this not immediately greeted with an impeachment process?

If the inherent powers the president claims he has are in fact inherent in the office, and necessary for the suruvival of the Republic he is acquitted.

If not -- if its just a naked power grab - not.

It's the institutional equivalent of the 'ticking time bomb' torture scenario.

If you really think the susect knows were the bomb is, and that torturing him gets you the information you need, you torture him, save the city, and then turn yourself in, to face prosecution

If your actions were meretorious, and justified by the situation, then no sane court will convict.

If not -- if you're just a sadist -- not.

The ambiguities and constitutional issues and Article II, section 4 powers, and so forth, would be settled in a month, and settled definitively, if Congress were to just impeach, and if impeached, just try, the President.

Jury nullification -- it's not just for juries any more

Truth really is the first casualty of war. Or, AUMF in this case. Or perhaps the global struggle agaist extremism.


legal fictions propounded by the Bush Administration and its water carriers.

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