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The NSA warrantless surveillance controversy concerns surveillance of persons within the United States incident to the collection of foreign intelligence by the U.S. National Security Agencymarker (NSA) as part of the war on terror. Under this program, referred to by the Bush administration as the "terrorist surveillance program", part of the broader President's Surveillance Program, the NSA is authorized by executive order to monitor phone calls, e-mails, Internet activity, text messaging, and other communication involving any party believed by the NSA to be outside the U.S., even if the other end of the communication lies within the U.S., without warrants.

The exact scope of the program is not known, but the NSA is or was provided total, unsupervised access to all fiber-optic communications going between some of the nation's major telecommunication companies' major interconnect locations, including phone conversations, email, web browsing, and corporate private network traffic. [217755]

Shortly before Congress passed a new law in August 2007 that legalized warrantless surveillance, the Protect America Act of 2007, critics stated that such "domestic" intercepts required FISC authorization under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Bush administration maintained that the authorized intercepts are not domestic but rather foreign intelligence integral to the conduct of war and that the warrant requirements of FISA were implicitly superseded by the subsequent passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF). FISA makes it illegal to intentionally engage in electronic surveillance under appearance of an official act or to disclose or use information obtained by electronic surveillance under appearance of an official act knowing that it was not authorized by statute; this is punishable with a fine of up to $10,000 or up to five years in prison, or both. In addition, the Wiretap Act prohibits any person from illegally intercepting,disclosing, using or divulging phone calls or electronic communications; this is punishable with a fine or up to five years in prison, or both.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confirmed the existence of the program, first reported in a December 16, 2005 article in The New York Times. The Times had posted the exclusive story on their website the night before, after learning that the Bush administration was considering seeking a Pentagon-Papers-style court injunction to block its publication. Critics of The Times have openly alleged that executive editor Bill Keller had knowingly withheld the story from publication since before the 2004 Presidential election, and that the story that was ultimately first published by The Times was essentially the same one that reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau had first submitted at that time. In a December 2008 interview with Newsweek, former Justice Department employee Thomas Tamm revealed himself to be the initial whistle-blower to The Times.

Gonzales stated that the program authorizes warrantless intercepts where the government "has a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda." and that one party to the conversation is "outside of the United States". The revelation raised immediate concern among elected officials, civil right activists, legal scholars and the public at large about the legality and constitutionality of the program and the potential for abuse. Since then, the controversy has expanded to include the press's role in exposing a classified program, the role and responsibility of Congress in its executive oversight function and the scope and extent of Presidential powers under Article II of the Constitution.


In mid-August 2007, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard arguments in two lawsuits challenging the surveillance program. The appeals were the first to reach the court after dozens of civil suits against the government and telecommunications companies over NSA surveillance were consolidated last year before the chief judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Vaughn R. Walker. One of the cases is a class action against AT&T, focusing on allegations that the company provided the NSA with its customers' phone and Internet communications for a vast data-mining operation. Plaintiffs in the second case are the al-Haramain Foundation Islamic charity and two of its lawyers.

On November 16, 2007, the three judges - M. Margaret McKeown, Michael Daly Hawkins, and Harry Pregerson - issued a 27-page rulingthat the charity, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, could not introduce a key piece of evidence in its case because it fell under the government's claim of state secrets, although the judges said that "In light of extensive government disclosures, the government is hard-pressed to sustain its claim that the very subject matter of the litigation is a state secret."

In an August 14, 2007 question-and-answer session with the El Paso Times newspaper which was published on August 22, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell confirmed for the first time that the private sector assisted with the warrantless surveillance program. "Now if you play out the suits at the value they're claimed, it would bankrupt these companies," McConnell said, arguing that they deserve immunity for their help. Plaintiffs in the AT&T suit subsequently filed a motion with the court to have McConnell's admission of corporate cooperation with the NSA admitted as evidence in their case.

The program may face an additional legal challenge in the appeal of two Albany, New Yorkmarker men convicted of criminal charges in an FBImarker anti-terror sting operation. Their lawyers contend that they have evidence the men were the subjects of NSA electronic surveillance, which was used to obtain their convictions but not made public at trial or made available in response to discovery requests by defense counsel at that time.

In an unusual related legal development, on October 13, 2007, The Washington Post reported that Joseph P. Nacchio, the former CEO of Qwest Communications, is appealing an April 2007 conviction on 19 counts of insider trading by alleging that the government withdrew opportunities for contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars after Qwest refused to participate in an unidentified National Security Agency program that the company thought might be illegal. According to court documents unsealed in Denver in early October as part of Nacchio's appeal, the NSA approached Qwest about participating in a warrantless surveillance program more than six months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks which have been cited by the government as the main impetus for its efforts. Nacchio is using the allegation to try to show why his stock sale should not have been considered improper. According to a lawsuit filed against other telecommunications companies for violating customer privacy, AT&T began preparing facilities for the NSA to monitor "phone call information and Internet traffic" seven months before 9/11.

On August 17, 2007, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said it would consider a request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union which asked the intelligence court to make public its recent, classified rulings on the scope of the government’s wiretapping powers. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, presiding judge of the FISC, signed an order calling the A.C.L.U.’s motion “an unprecedented request that warrants further briefing.”The FISC ordered the government to respond on the issue by Aug. 31, saying that anything involving classified material could be filed under court seal.On the August 31 deadline, the National Security Division of the Justice Departmentmarker filed a response in opposition to the ACLU's motion with the court.

In previous developments, the case ACLU v. NSA was dismissed on July 6, 2007 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.The court did not rule on the spying program's legality. Instead, its 65-page opinion declared that the American Civil Liberties Union and the others who brought the case - including academics, lawyers and journalists - did not have the legal standing to sue because they could not demonstrate that they had been direct targets of the clandestine surveillance. Detroit District Court judge Anna Diggs Taylor had originally ruled on August 17, 2006 that the program is illegal under FISA as well as unconstitutional under the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Judicial Watch, a watchdog group, discovered that at the time of the ruling Taylor "serves as a secretary and trustee for a foundation that donated funds to the ACLU of Michigan, a plaintiff in the case." On February 19, 2008, the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker, without comment, turned down an appeal from the American Civil Liberties Union, letting stand the earlier decision dismissing the case.

On September 28, 2006 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act (H.R. 5825). That bill now has been passed to the U.S. Senate where three competing, mutually-exclusive, bills—the Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006 (S.2455) (the DeWine bill), the National Security Surveillance Act of 2006 (S.2455) (the Specter bill), and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Improvement and Enhancement Act of 2006 (S.3001) (the Specter-Feinstein bill) -- were themselves referred for debate to the full Senate by the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 13, 2006. Each of these bills would in some form broaden the statutory authorization for electronic surveillance, while still subjecting it to some restrictions. The Specter-Feinstein bill would extend the peacetime period for obtaining retroactive warrants to seven days and implement other changes to facilitate eavesdropping while maintaining FISA court oversight. The DeWine bill, the Specter bill, and the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act (passed by the House) would all authorize some limited forms or periods of warrantless electronic surveillance subject to additional programmatic oversight by either the FISC (Specter bill) or Congress (DeWine and Wilson bills).

On January 17, 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales informed U.S. Senate leaders by letter [217756] that the program would not be reauthorized by the President. "Any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," according to his letter.

On September 18, 2008, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an Internet-privacy advocacy group, filed a new lawsuit against the NSA, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney's chief of staff David Addington, former Attorney General and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and other government agencies and individuals who ordered or participated in the warrantless surveillance. They sued on behalf of AT&T customers to seek redress for what the EFF alleges to be an illegal, unconstitutional, and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records. An earlier, ongoing suit by the EFF may be bogged down by the recent changes to FISA provisions, but these are not expected to impact this new case.

On January 23, 2009, the administration of President Barack Obama adopted the same position as his predecessor when it urged U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to set aside a ruling in Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation et al. v. Obama, et al. The Obama administration also sided with the former administration in its legal defense of July, 2008 legislation that immunized the nation's telecommunications companies from lawsuits accusing them of complicity in the eavesdropping program, according to testimony by Attorney General Eric Holder.



The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act regulates U.S. government agencies' carrying out of physical searches, and electronic surveillance, wherein the main purpose is the gathering of foreign intelligence information. "Foreign intelligence information" is defined in as information necessary to protect the U.S. or its allies against actual or potential attack from a foreign power, sabotage or international terrorism. FISA defines a "foreign power" as a foreign government or any faction(s) of a foreign government not substantially composed of US persons, or any entity directed or controlled by a foreign government. FISA provides for both criminal and civil liability for intentional electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute.

FISA provides two documents for the authorization of surveillance. First, FISA allows the Justice Department to obtain warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) before or up to 72 hours after the beginning of the surveillance. FISA authorizes a FISC judge to issue a warrant for the electronic cameras if "there is probable cause to believe that… the target of the electronic surveillance is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power." 50 U.S.C. §1805(a)(3). Second, FISA permits the President or his delegate to authorize warrantless surveillance for the collection of foreign intelligence if "there is 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)(1).

NSA surveillance program

Soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks U.S. President George W. Bush issued an executive order that authorized the National Security Agencymarker (NSA) to conduct surveillance of certain telephone calls without obtaining a warrant from the FISC as stipulated by FISA (see ). The complete details of the executive order are not known, but according to statements by the administration, the authorization covers telephone calls originating overseas from or to a person suspected of having links to terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or its affiliates even when the other party to the call is within the US. The legality of surveillance involving US persons and extent of this authorization is at the core of this controversy which has steadily grown to include:

  • Constitutional issues concerning the separation of powers and the Fourth Amendment immunities.
  • The effectiveness and scope of the program.
  • The legality of the leaking and publication of classified information and the implications for U.S. national security arising from the disclosure.
  • Adequacy of FISA as a tool for fighting terrorism

Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Resolution

About a week after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists which authorized the President to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

The administration has argued that the language used in the AUMF implicitly authorized the President to exercise those powers "incident to the waging of war", including the collection of enemy intelligence, FISA provisions notwithstanding.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VTmarker), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee along with lone co-sponsor Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduced S. Res. 350, a resolution "expressing the sense of the Senate that Senate Joint Resolution 23 (107th Congress), as adopted by the Senate on September 14, 2001, and subsequently enacted as the Authorization for Use of Military Force does not authorize warrantless domestic surveillance of United States citizens." This non-binding resolution died in the Senate without being brought up for debate or being voted upon.

Legal issues

The NSA surveillance controversy involves legal issues that fall into two broad disciplines: statutory interpretation and Constitutional law. Statutory interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying legislation to the facts of a given case. Constitutional law is the body of law that governs the interpretation of the United States Constitution and covers areas of law such as the relationship between the federal government and state governments, the rights of individuals, and other fundamental aspects of the application of government authority in the United States.

Statutory interpretation issues

A court of law faced with determining the legality of the NSA program would have to first grapple with the statutory interpretation of FISA itself Since FISA has the potential to raise certain Constitutional conflicts relating to the powers assigned to Congress and the Executive in Articles I and II respectively, the canon of constitutional avoidance requires a court to first determine if the FISA statutes can be "fairly read" to avoid Constitutional conflict. Assuming such an interpretation can be found, the question then turns to whether or not the NSA wiretap authorizations were violative of the statute as so read. Without knowing how a court would resolve the first issue and the classified specifics of the program itself, it is not possible to predict the outcome.

FISA exclusivity provision

(2)(f) provides in relevant part that "the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 shall be the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance, as defined in  ... and the intercept of domestic [communications] may be conducted." The interpretation of this clause is central to the controversy because both sides agree that the NSA program operates outside of the procedural framework provided by FISA. The interpretive conflict arises because other provisions of FISA, including the criminal sanctions subpart   include an "unless authorized by statute" provision, raising the issue of statutory ambiguity. The administration's position is that the AUMF is an authorizing statute which satisfies the FISA criteria. Critics contend that by the canon of Ejusdem generis (the doctrine that if ambiguity exists, generic legislative language must yield to specific provisions), the specific provisions of the FISA restrictions supersede the general authority granted by the AUMF. In their letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee a group of law professors and former government officials addressed this issue directly:

The U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker faced a similar issue in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld where the government claimed that the AUMF authorized the President to detain U.S. citizens designated as an enemy combatant despite its lack of specific language to that intent and notwithstanding the provisions of which requires that the United States government cannot detain an American citizen except by an act of Congress. In that case, the Court ruled:

In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld however, the court rejected the government's argument that the AUMF implicitly authorized the President to establish military commissions in violation of the UCMJ. The opinion of the Court held:

Determining when explicit congressional authorization is and is not required appears by this decision to require a court to first determine whether an implicit authorization would amount to a "repeal by implication" of the governing Act.

The exclusivity clause also raises a separation of powers issue. (See Constitutional law issues below)

Domestic versus foreign intelligence

The arguments against the legality of the NSA fall into two broad categories, those who argue that FISA raises no Constitutional issues and therefore the NSA program is illegal on its face and those who argue that FISA (perhaps purposefully) raises a Constitutional conflict, one which they believe should be resolved in Congress' favor.

Common to both of these views is the argument that the participation of "US persons" as defined in FISA renders the objectional intercepts "domestic" in nature. Those advocating the "no constitutional issue" position, argue that Congress has the authority it needs to legislate in this area under Article I and the Fourth AmendmentSee for example,[217757]|Cole, Epstein, Heynmann Open Letter to Congress]
Congress indisputably has authority to regulate electronic surveillance within the United States, as it has done in FISA. Where Congress has so regulated, the President can act in contravention of statute only if his authority is exclusive, that is, not subject to the check of statutory regulation.
while those who see a constitutional conflict acknowledge that the existing delineation between Congressional and Executive authority in this area is not clear but that Congress, in including the exclusivity clause in FISA, meant to carve out a legitimate role for itself in this arena.

The administration holds that an exception to the normal warrant requirements exists when the purpose of the surveillance is to prevent attack from a foreign threat. Such an exception has been upheld at the Circuit Court level when the target was a foreign agent residing abroad a foreign agent residing in the US and a US citizen abroad. The warrantless exception was struck down when both the target and the threat was deemed domestic. The legality of targeting US persons acting as agents of a foreign power and residing in this country has not been addressed by the US Supreme Court, but has occurred at least once, in the case of Aldrich Ames.

Administration's statutory position

The Administration's position with regard to statutory interpretation, as outlined in the DOJ whitepaper, is to avoid what it has termed the "difficult Constitutional questions" by
  • interpreting the FISA "except as authorized by statute" clause to mean that Congress allowed for future legislative statute(s) to provide exceptions to the FISA warrant requirements,
  • that the AUMF was such a statute, and
  • as such, implicitly provided executive authority to authorize warrantless interception of enemy communication.
This argument, as outlined in the DOJ whitepaper, is based on the language of the AUMF, specifically, the acknowledgment of the President's Constitutional authority contained in the preamble; "Whereas, the President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States", and the language in the resolution itself;

The administration also adds that the program is legal under Title II of the USA PATRIOT Act entitled Enhanced Surveillance Procedures, although it is not relying upon the domestic law enforcement provisions of the PATRIOT Act for authorization of any of the NSA program activities. The President had said prior to this, that Americans' civil liberties were being protected and that purely domestic wiretapping was being conducted pursuant to warrants under applicable law, including the Patriot Act. Remarks by the President in a Conversation on the USA Patriot Act

These arguments must be compared to the language of the FISA itself, which states:

Because the law only authorizes the President to bypass the FISA court during the first 15 days of a war declared by Congress (see "Declaration of war"), the administration's argument rests on the assumption that the AUMF gave the President more power than was understood as absolutely implicit in any Congressional "declaration of war" at the time of the statute's enactment. However, as a "declaration of war by the Congress" encompasses all military actions so declared, no matter how small, brief or otherwise constrained by Congress, the above citation could be seen as setting not a default or typical level of Presidential wartime authority, but instead a presumptive minimum, which might more often than not be extended (explicitly or implicitly) by Congress's war declaration.

Duty to notify Congress

According to Peter J. Wallison, former White House Counsel to President Ronald Reagan: "It is true, of course, that a president's failure to report to Congress when he is required to do so by law is a serious matter, but in reality the reporting requirement was a technicality that a President could not be expected to know about." In regard to this program, a Gang of Eight (eight key members of Congress, thirteen in this case between the 107th and 109th Congressional Sessions) have been kept informed to some degree:

Under the National Security Act of 1947, §501-503, codified as 50 USC §413-§413b, the President is required to keep Congressional intelligence committees "fully and currently" informed of U.S. intelligence activities, "consistent with ... protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified information relating to sensitive intelligence sources and methods or other exceptionally sensitive matters." For covert actions, from which intelligence gathering activities are specifically excluded in §413b(e)(1), the President is specifically permitted to limit reporting to the so-called Gang of Eight.

The administration contends that with regard to the NSA surveillance program, the administration fulfilled its notification obligations by briefing key members of Congress (thirteen individuals in this case between the 107th and 109th Congressional sessions) have been briefed on the NSA program more than a dozen times but they were forbidden from sharing information about the program with other members or staff.

On January 18, 2006, the Congressional Research Service released a report, "Statutory Procedures Under Which Congress Is To Be Informed of U.S. Intelligence Activities, Including Covert Actions". That report found that "[b]ased upon publicly reported descriptions of the program, the NSA surveillance program would appear to fall more closely under the definition of an intelligence collection program, rather than qualify as a covert action program as defined by statute", and, therefore, concluded there was no specific statutory basis for limiting briefings on the terrorist surveillance program to the Gang of Eight However, the report goes on to note in its concluding paragraph that limited disclosure is also permitted under the statute "in order to protect intelligence sources and methods".

Thus, although the specific statutory "Gang of Eight" notification procedure for covert action would not seem to apply to the NSA program, it is not clear if a limited notification procedure intended to protect sources and methods is expressly prohibited. Additionally, should the sources and methods exception apply it will require a factual determination as to whether it should apply to disclosure of the program itself or only to specific sensitive aspects.

Constitutional law issues

The constitutional debate surrounding executive authorization of warrantless surveillance is principally about separation of powers ("checks and balances"). If, as discussed above, no "fair reading" of FISA can be found in satisfaction of the canon of avoidance, these issues will have to be decided at the appellate level, by United States courts of appeals. It should be noted that in such a separation of powers dispute, the burden of proof is placed upon the Congress to establish its supremacy in the matter: the Executive branch enjoys the presumption of authority until an Appellate Court rules against it.

Article I and II

Article I vests Congress with the sole authority "To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces" and "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.". The U.S. Supreme Court has used "the necessary and proper" clause of Article I to affirm broad Congressional authority to legislate as it sees fit in the domestic arena but has limited its application in the arena of foreign affairs. In the landmark Curtiss-Wright decision, Justice Sutherland writes in his opinion of the Court:

Article II vests the President with power as "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States," and requires that he "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed".

The U.S. Supreme Court has historically used Article II to justify wide deference to the President in the arena of foreign affairs, but is it 100% relevant? Two historical and recent Supreme Court cases define the secret wiretapping by the NSA. Quoting again from the Curtiss-Wright decision:

The extent of the President's power as Commander-in-Chief has never been fully defined, but two U.S. Supreme Court cases are considered seminal in this area. -Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer and Curtiss-Wright.

In addition, two relatively new cases, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, have clarified, and in the case of Hamdan limited, the scope of executive power to detain and try suspected terrorists as enemy combatants.

In Hamdan, the Court's opinion in footnote 23, rejected the notion that Congress is impotent to regulate the exercise of executive war powers:

Whether "proper exercise" of Congressional war powers includes authority to regulate the gathering of foreign intelligence, which in other rulings has been recognized as "fundamentally incident to the waging of war", is a historical point of contention between the Executive and Legislative branches.

As noted in "Presidential Authority to Conduct Warrantless Electronic Surveillance to Gather Foreign Intelligence Information", published by The Congressional Research Service:

The same report makes clear the Congressional view that intelligence gathered within the U.S. and where "one party is a U.S. person" qualifes as domestic in nature and as such completely within their purview to regulate, and further that Congress may "tailor the President’s use of an inherent constitutional power":

Fourth Amendment issues

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights which guards against "unreasonable" searches and seizures, and for many such searches or seizures, requires an order from a court known as a warrant. It is a right of the individual that neither the Executive nor Legislative branch can lawfully abrogate, not even if acting in concert.

The term "unreasonable" is deliberately imprecise but connotes the sense that there is a rational basis for the search and that it is not an excessive imposition upon the individual given the motivation for and circumstances of the search, and is in accordance with customary societal norms. It is conceived that a judge will be sufficiently distanced from the authorities seeking a warrant that he can render an impartial decision unaffected by any prejudices or improper motivations they may harbor.

An individual who believes that his Fourth Amendment rights have been violated by an unreasonable search or seizure may file a civil suit for monetary compensation and to seek a court-ordered end to a pattern or practice of such unlawful activities by government authorities. Such civil rights violations are sometimes punishable by state or federal law. Evidence obtained in an unlawful search or seizure is generally inadmissible in a criminal trial.

The law countenances searches without warrant as "reasonable" in numerous circumstances, among them (see below): the persons, property, and papers of individuals crossing the border of the United States and those of paroled felons; in prisons, public schools and government offices; and of international mail. Although these are undertaken as a result of statute or Executive order, they should not be seen as deriving their legitimacy from these, rather, the Fourth Amendment explicitly allows reasonable searches, and the government has instituted some of these as public policy.

The Supreme Court held in Katz v. United States (1967), that the monitoring and recording of private conversations within the United States constitutes a "search" for Fourth Amendment purposes, and therefore the government must generally obtain a warrant before undertaking such domestic wiretapping.

The protection of "private conversations" has been held to apply only to conversations where the participants have not merely a desire but a reasonable expectation that the conversation is indeed private to themselves and that no party whatsoever is listening in. In the absence of such a reasonable expectation, the Fourth Amendment does not apply, and surveillance without warrant does not violate it. Privacy is clearly not a reasonable expectation in communications to persons in the many countries whose governments openly intercept electronic communications, and is of dubious reasonability in countries against which the United States is waging war.

The law also recognizes a distinction between domestic surveillance taking place within U.S. borders and foreign surveillance of non-U.S. persons either in the U.S. or abroad. In United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that the Constitution does not extend protection to non-U.S. persons located outside of the United States, so no warrant would be required to engage in even physical searches of non-U.S. citizens abroad.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of warrantless searches targeting foreign powers or their agents within the US. There have been, however, a number of Circuit Court rulings upholding the constitutionality of such warrantless searches. In USA v. Osama bin Laden, the Second Circuit noted that "no court, prior to FISA, that was faced with the choice, imposed a warrant requirement for foreign intelligence searches undertaken within the United States." Assistant Attorney General William Moschella in his written response to questions from the House Judiciary Committee explained that in the administration's view, this unanimity of pre-FISA Circuit Court decisions vindicates their argument that warrantless foreign-intelligence surveillance authority existed prior to FISA and since, as these ruling indicate, that authority derives from the Executive's inherent Article II powers, they may not be encroached by statute. In 2002, the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review (Court of Review) met for the first time and issued an opinion (In Re Sealed Case No. 02-001) which seems to echo that view. They too noted all the Federal courts of appeal having looked at the issue had concluded that there was constitutional power for the president to conduct warrantless foreign intelligence surveillance. Furthermore, based on these rulings it "took for granted such power exits" and ruled that under this presumption, "FISA could not encroach on the president's constitutional power." Professor Orin Kerr argues in rebuttal that the part of In Re Sealed Case that dealt with FISA (rather than the Fourth Amendment) was nonbinding obiter dicta and that the argument does not restrict Congress's power to regulate the executive in general.

Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School, Suzanne Spaulding, former general counsel for the Intelligence Committees of the House and Senate, and former Counsel to the President John Dean, contend that FISA clearly makes the wiretapping illegal and subject to the criminal penalties of FISA, (in seeming disagreement with the FISA Court of Review finding above) and that the president's own admissions already constitute sufficient evidence of a violation of the Fourth Amendment, without requiring further factual evidence. Professor John Eastman, in his analysis, prepared at the behest of the House Judiciary Committee, comparing the CRS and DOJmarker reports, concluded instead that under the Constitution and ratified by both historical and Supreme Court precedent, "the President clearly has the authority to conduct surveillance of enemy communications in time of war and of the communications to and from those he reasonably believes are affiliated with our enemies. Moreover, it should go without saying that such activities are a fundamental incident of war."

Border search exception
Orin S. Kerr, associate professor of law at The George Washington University Law School and a leading scholar in the subjects of computer crime law and internet surveillance, points to an analogy between the NSA intercepts and searches allowed by the Fourth Amendment under the border search exception.

Criminal prosecution under the NSA program
Evidence gathered without warrant may raise significant Fourth Amendment issues which could preclude its use in a criminal trial. As a general rule of law, evidence obtained improperly without lawful authority, may not be used in a criminal prosecution. The U.S. Supreme Court has never addressed the constitutionality of warrantless searches (which has been broadly defined by SCOTUSmarker to include surveillance) targeting foreign powers or their agents, the admissibility of such evidence in a criminal trial nor whether it is permissible to obtain or use evidence gathered without warrant against US persons acting as agents of a foreign power.

Presidential findings
The National Security Act of 1947 requires Presidential findings for covert acts. SEC. 503. [50 U.S.C. 413b] (a) (5) of that act states: "A finding may not authorize any action that would violate the Constitution or any statute of the United States."

District Court findings

On August 17, 2006, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled in ACLU v. NSA that the Terrorist Surveillance Program was unconstitutional under the Fourth and First Amendments and enjoined the NSA from using the program to conduct electronic surveillance "in contravention of [FISA or Title III]". In her ruling, she wrote:

Even some legal experts who agreed with the outcome have criticized the reasoning set forth in the opinion Others have argued that the perceived flaws in the opinion in fact reflect the Department of Justice's refusal to argue the legal merits of the program (they chose to focus solely on arguments about standing and state secrets grounds).

On October 4, 2006, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit unanimously ruled that the government can continue the program while it appeals the lower court decision.

On July 6, 2007 the Sixth Circuit dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiffs had no standing.

The Court found that:

Corporate confidentiality analysis

Corporate secrecy is also an issue. Wired reported: In a letter to the EFF, AT&T objected to the filing of the documents in any manner, saying that they contain sensitive trade secrets and could be "used to 'hack' into the AT&T network, compromising its integrity."However, Chief Judge Vaughn Walker stated, during the September 12, 2008 hearing in the class-action lawsuit filed by the EFF, that the Klein evidence could be presented in court, effectively ruling that AT&T's trade secret and security claims were unfounded.

Third-party legal analytical arguments

Program is legal or probably legal

Arguing that the program is illegal or probably illegal

The arguments against the legality of the NSA fall into two broad categories, those who argue that FISA raises no Constitutional issues and therefore the NSA program is illegal on its face and those who argue that FISA (perhaps purposefully) raises a Constitutional conflict which should be resolved in Congress' favor.

  • On February 13, 2006, the American Bar Association (ABA) denounced the warrantless domestic surveillance program, accusing the President of exceeding his powers under the Constitution. The ABA also formulated a policy opposing any future government use of electronic surveillance in the United States for foreign intelligence purposes without obtaining warrants from a special secret court as required by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.[217759]
  • According to a report in The Boston Globe on February 2, 2006 three law professors, David D. Cole (Georgetown Universitymarker), Richard Epstein (University of Chicagomarker), and Philip Heymann (Harvardmarker), said that what Bush is doing is unprecedented. Bush's claim that other presidents asserted that wartime powers supersede an act of Congress, "is either intentionally misleading or downright false," Cole said. He said Bush is misstating the In Re Sealed Case No. 02-001 ruling which supported Congressional regulation of surveillance. Epstein believes the United States Supreme Courtmarker would reject the Administration's argument and said, "I find every bit of this legal argument disingenuous...The president's position is essentially that (Congress) is not doing the right thing, so I'm going to act on my own." Professor Heymann, a former deputy US attorney general said, "The bottom line is, I know of no electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed that was not done under the . . . statute."
  • Cole, Epstein, Heynmann and eleven other prominent legal scholars (Beth Nolan, Curtis Bradley, Geoffrey Stone, Harold Hongju Koh, Kathleen Sullivan, Laurence Tribe, Martin Lederman, Ronald Dworkin, Walter Dellinger, William S. Sessions and William Van Alstyne) wrote a letter to Congress that appeared in the New York Review of Books on February 9, 2006.[217760] They wrote that "the Justice Department's defense of what it concedes was secret and warrantless electronic surveillance of persons within the United States fails to identify any plausible legal authority for such surveillance. Accordingly the program appears on its face to violate existing law." They summarized:
  • Professor Peter Swire, the C. William O’Neill Professor of Law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote a detailed "Legal FAQs on NSA Wiretaps" concluding that "[b]ased on the facts available to date, the wiretap program appears to be clearly illegal." Prof. Swire has previously written a very detailed history and analysis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, published in Volume 72 of the George Washington Law Review, at 1306 (2004) and previously chaired a White House Working Group, including the intelligence agencies, on how to update electronic surveillance law for the Internet Age.
  • Robert Reinstein, dean of the law school at Temple Universitymarker, has asserted that the warrantless domestic spying program is
    • Mr. Reinstein asserted that the broad consensus among legal scholars and national security experts is similar to his own analysis, and he predicted that the courts will rule that the program is unconstitutional. New York Times
  • Edward Lazarus, author, law professor and former U.S. Supreme Court clerk and federal prosecutor, has argued in articles such as "Warrantless Wiretapping: Why It Seriously Imperils the Separation of Powers, And Continues the Executive's Sapping of Power From Congress and the Courts", that "Unilateral executive power is tyranny, plain and simple".
  • Orin S. Kerr, a professor at The George Washington University Law School, prominent blogger and scholar of the legal framework of electronic surveillance has opined that the issues are complex, but that after his first analysis he concluded that the wiretapping probably does not infringe on Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, though it probably does violate FISA. President Bush has maintained he acted within "legal authority derived from the constitution" and that Congress "granted [him] additional authority to use military force against al Qaeda". However, while the President may argue that the necessary statutory authority to override FISA's warrant provisions is provided by the authorization to use "all necessary force" in the employment of military resources to protect the security of the United States, and that the use of wiretapping is a qualifying use of force (under the terms of the authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaida as found in Senate Joint Resolution 23, 2001), Kerr believes that this justification is ultimately unpersuasive, as is the argument that the President's power as the Commander-in-Chief (as derived from Article Two of the United States Constitution) provides him with the necessary constitutional authority to circumvent FISA during a time of war. Kerr cautiously estimates that about eight of the nine Supreme Court justices would agree with him that Article Two cannot trump statutes like FISA.
  • Robert M. Bloom, Professor of Law at Boston Collegemarker, says this in a paper entitled "The Constitutional Infirmity of Warrantless NSA Surveillance: The Abuse of Presidential Power and the Injury to the Fourth Amendment," published on February 19, 2007, which he co-authored with William J. Dunn, a former Defense Department intelligence analyst, also of BC Law School:[217761]
  • Glenn Greenwald, constitutional lawyer, author and prominent blogger ( Greenwald's legal blog) arguing that the NSA program is illegal summarized:[217762]
    • After the Supreme Court's judgment in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Greenwald wrote: "The administration’s theories to justify the President’s lawbreaking have always been frivolous. But for those pretending not to recognize that fact, the Supreme Court has so ruled."[217763]
  • Jordan Paust, Mike and Teresa Baker College Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center, rejected the administration's legal arguments for the NSA program writing:[217764]
  • William C. Banks, Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse Universitymarker argued that the NSA program is unconstitutional, writing that "in the unlikely event that legal authority for the NSA program can be found, this domestic spying violates the Fourth Amendment."[217765]
  • John Dean, Author and former White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon testified before Congress on March 31, 2006, on the issue of censuring George Bush for authorizing the NSA wiretap program, saying "I hope... you will not place the president above the law by inaction. As I was gathering my thoughts yesterday to respond to the hasty invitation, it occurred to me that had the Senate or House, or both, censured or somehow warned Richard Nixon, the tragedy of Watergate might have been prevented. Hopefully the Senate will not sit by while even more serious abuses unfold before it."[217766]

Technical and operational details

Because of its highly classified status, little is publicly known about the actual implementation of the NSA domestic electronic surveillance program. Mark Klein, a retired AT&T communications technician, submitted an affidavit including limited technical details known to him personally in support of a class-action lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundationin federal district court in San Francisco in January 2006 on behalf of AT&T customers who alleged that they had been damaged by the telecommunications corporation's cooperation with the NSA.

A January 16, 2004 statement by Mr. Klein includes additional technical details regarding the secret 2003 construction of an NSA-operated monitoring facility in Room 641A of 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco, the site of a large SBC phone building, three floors of which are occupied by AT&T.

According to Klein's affidavit, the NSA-equipped room uses equipment built by Narus Corporation to intercept and analyze communications traffic, as well as perform data-mining functions.[217767]

In an article appearing in the January/February 2008 issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal of Security and Privacy, noted technology experts from academia and the computing industry analyzed potential security risks posed by the NSA program, based on information contained in Klein's affidavits as well as those of expert witness J. Scott Marcus, a designer of large-scale IP-based data networks, former CTO at GTE Internetworking and at Genuity, and former senior advisor for Internet Technology at the US Federal Communications Commission.They concluded that the likely architecture of the system created serious security risks, including the danger that such a surveillance system could be exploited by unauthorized users, criminally misused by trusted insiders, or abused by government agents.

Related issues

Warrantless wiretaps and the history of FISA

The administration has compared the NSA warrantless surveillance program with historical wartime warrantless searches in the United States, going back to George Washington.

Critics have pointed out that Washington's surveillance occurred before the existence of the U.S. Constitution, and the other historical precedents cited by the administration were before the passage of FISA, and therefore did not directly contravene federal law. Abuses of electronic surveillance by the federal government such as Project SHAMROCK led to reform legislation in the 1970s. Advancing technology began to present questions not directly addressed by the legislation as early as 1985.

Executive order by previous administrations including Clinton's and Carter's authorized the attorneys general to exercise authority with respect to both options under FISA. In Clinton's executive order, he authorized his attorney general "[pursuant] to section 302(a)(1)" to conduct physical searches without court order "if the Attorney General makes the certifications required by that section".

Sufficiency of FISA in the war on terror

On December 19, 2005, U.S. Dept. of Justice Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs, William Moschella, wrote a letter to the Chairs and Ranking Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, defending the NSA program:

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson of Utah, also of the FISC, stated that he was unclear on why the FISC's emergency authority would not meet the administration's stated "need to move quickly." He and fellow judges on the court attended a briefing in January, called by presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. Reportedly, the court was also concerned about "whether the administration had misled their court about its sources of information on possible terrorism suspects . . . [as this] could taint the integrity of the court's work."

In part to address this problem, several commentators have raised the issue of whether, regardless how one feels about the authorization issue, FISA needs to be amended to address specific foreign intelligence needs, current technology developments, and advanced technical methods of intelligence gathering, in particular to provide for programmatic approvals of general or automated surveillance of foreign terrorist communications, the results of which could then legally be used as predicate for FISA warrants. In a recent essay, Judge Richard A. Posner opined that FISA “retains value as a framework for monitoring the communications of known terrorists, but it is hopeless as a framework for detecting terrorists. [FISA] requires that surveillance be conducted pursuant to warrants based on probable cause to believe that the target of surveillance is a terrorist, when the desperate need is to find out who is a terrorist.”For other examples, see Fixing Surveillance; Why We Listen, The Eavesdropping Debate We Should be Having; A New Surveillance Act; and A historical solution to the Bush spying issue (the latter setting out a historical perspective on the need for programmatic approval in foreign intelligence surveillance generally). And see Whispering Wires and Warrantless Wiretaps (discussing how FISA is inadequate to address certain technology developments).

During the investigational phase of the 9/11 Commission, a letter written by Special Agent Coleen Rowley, in her capacity as legal council to the FBI's Minneapolis Field Office, to FBI Director Robert Mueller came to the attention of the committee. In that letter and in subsequent testimony before the commission and the Senate Judiciary Committee, SA Rowley recounted among other things, the manner in which FISA procedural hurdles had hampered the FBI's investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui (the so called "20th hijacker") prior to the 9/11 attacks. Among the factors she cited were the complexity of the application and the detailed information required and confusion by field operatives about the standard of probable cause required by the FISC and the strength of the required link to a foreign power. At his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June, 2002, Director Mueller in response to questions about the Rowley allegations testified that unlike normal criminal procedures, FISA warrant applications are "complex and detailed", requiring the intervention of FBI Headquarters (FBIHQ) personnel trained in a specialized procedure (the "Woods" procedure) to ensure accuracy.

FISA exclusivity controversy

On January 19, 2006 the Department of Justice published a memorandum that stated in part:

The following day, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VTmarker), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee along with lone co-sponsor Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduced S. Res. 350, a resolution "expressing the sense of the Senate that Senate Joint Resolution 23 (107th Congress), as adopted by the Senate on September 14, 2001, and subsequently enacted as the Authorization for Use of Military Force does not authorize warrantless domestic surveillance of United States citizens." An excerpt of the proposed Leahy-Kennedy resolution follows:

On February 2, 2006 the same 14 constitutional scholars and former government officials responded:

On June 29, 2006, in a detainee case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court rejected an analogous AUMF argument. Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens, while ruling that "the AUMF activated the President’s war powers, and that those powers include the authority to convene military commissions in appropriate circumstances" (citations omitted), held there was nothing in the AUMF language "even hinting that Congress intended to expand or alter the authorization set forth in Article 21 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The distinction drawn by J. Stevens in Hamdan between that case and Hamdi, where the AUMF language was found to override the explicit language regarding detention in 18 U.S.C. § 4001(a) is that the instant case would require a "Repeal by implication" of the UCMJ. How this distinction would be drawn in future cases involving the NSA program is unclear.

Separation of powers and Unitary Executive theory

The administration argues that the power to conduct the warrantless surveillance within U.S. borders was granted by the Constitution and by a statutory exemption, as is advocated by the Unitary Executive theory using the interpretation of John Yoo et al.. He argues that the President had the "inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information."

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled that the President's authority as commander-in-chief extends to the "independent authority to repel aggressive acts...without specific congressional authorization" and without court review of the "level of force selected." Whether such declarations applying to foreign intelligence are in compliance with FISA has been examined by few courts since the passage of the act in 1978.

It is also uncertain whether the allegation that surveillance involves foreign parties suffices to extend law governing the president's military and foreign affairs powers to cover domestic activities. The Supreme Court voiced this concern in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, ruling that "a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens."

The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research arm of the Library of Congress, released a detailed report on NSA electronic surveillance, "Presidential Authority to Conduct Warrantless Electronic Surveillance to Gather Foreign Intelligence Information," on January 5, 2006, which concluded:

Classified information

Leaking of classified information

Disclosure of classified information is governed by federal statute, 18 USCS §798 . This statute says that

This statute is not limited in application to only federal government employees. However, the Code of Federal Regulations suggests the statute may apply primarily to the "[c]ommunication of classified information by Government officer or employee". 50 USCS §783 (2005).

There is a statutory procedure for a "whistleblower" in the intelligence community to report concerns with the propriety of a secret program, The Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998, Pub. L. 105-272, Title VII, 112 Stat. 2413 (1998). Essentially the Act provides for disclosure to the agency Inspector General, and if the result of that is unsatisfactory, appeal to the Congressional Intelligence Committees. A former official of the NSAmarker, Russ Tice, has asked to testify under the terms of the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, in order to provide information to these committees about "highly classified Special Access Programs, or SAPs, that were improperly carried out by both the NSAmarker and the Defense Intelligence Agency." ( Washington Times)

Executive Order 13292, which sets up the U.S. security classification system, provides (Sec 1.7) that "[i]n no case shall information be classified in order to conceal violations of law".

Given doubts about the legality of the overall program, the classification of its existence may not have been valid under E.O. 13292.

Publication of classified information

It is unlikely that the New York Times could be held liable for publishing its article under established Supreme Court precedent. In Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment precluded liability for a media defendant for publication of illegally obtained communications that the media defendant itself did nothing illegal to obtain if the topic involves a public controversy. The high court in Bartnicki accepted due to the suit's procedural position, that interception of information which was ultimately broadcast by the defendant radio station was initially illegal (in violation of ECPA), but nonetheless gave the radio station a pass because it did nothing itself illegal to obtain the information.

Nor could the government have prevented the publication of the classified information by obtaining an injunction. In the Pentagon Papers case, (New York Times Co. v. U.S. ( 403 US 713)), the Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision that injunctions against the New York Times publication of classified information (United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by The Department of Defense, a 47 volume, 7,000-page, top-secret United States Department of Defensemarker history of the United Statesmarker' political and military involvement in the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1971) were unconstitutional prior restraints and that the government had not met the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint.

The 1917 Espionage Act as amended in 1950 forbids unauthorized possession of classified information. Although the Justice Department as a matter of law sees no exemption for the press, as a matter of fact it has refrained from prosecuting:

On the other hand, Bill Keller, New York Times Executive Editor, told the Washington Post,

Responses and analyses

Administration response to press stories

On December 17, 2005, President George W. Bush addressed the growing controversy in his weekly radio broadcast.[217768] He stated that he was using his authority as President, as Commander in Chief of the US military, and such authority as the United States Congress had given him, to intercept international communications of "people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations". He added that before intercepting any communications, "the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks." He speculated that had the right communications been intercepted, perhaps the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. He said the NSA program was re-authorized every 45 days, having at that time been reauthorized "more than 30 times"; it was reviewed by the Justice Departmentmarker and NSA lawyers "including NSA's general counsel and inspector general", and Congress leaders had been briefed "more than a dozen times". President's December 17, 2005 Radio Address

In a speech in Buffalo, New York on April 20, 2004, he had said that:

And again, during a speech at Kansas State Universitymarker on January 23, 2006, President Bush mentioned the program, and added that it was "what I would call a terrorist surveillance program", intended to "best... use information to protect the American people", and that:

During a speech in New York on January 19, 2006 Vice President Dick Cheney commented on the controversy, stating that a "vital requirement in the war on terror is that we use whatever means are appropriate to try to find out the intentions of the enemy," that complacency towards further attack was dangerous, and that the lack of another major attack since 2001 was due to "round the clock efforts" and "decisive policies", and "more than luck." He stated that:

In a press conference on December 19 held by both Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and General Michael Hayden, the Principal Deputy Director for National Intelligence, General Hayden claimed, "This program has been successful in detecting and preventing attacks inside the United States." He stated that even an emergency authorization under FISA required marshaling arguments and "looping paperwork around". Hayden also implied that decisions on whom to intercept under the wiretapping program were being made on the spot by a shift supervisor and another person, but refused to discuss details of the specific requirements for speed.

Beginning in mid-January 2006 there was an increase in public discussion on the legality of the terrorist surveillance program by the Administration.

The United States Department of Justicemarker sent a 42 page white paper to Congress on January 19, 2006 stating the grounds upon which it was felt the NSA program was entirely legal, which restates and elaborates on reasoning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales used at the December press conference when the legality of the program was questioned. Gonzales spoke further at Georgetown Universitymarker January 24, claiming that Congress had given the President the authority to order the surveillance without going through the courts, and that normal procedures to order surveillance were too slow and cumbersome.

General Hayden stressed the NSA respect for the Fourth Amendment, stating at the National Press Club on January 23, 2006 that, "Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such."

Some sources state that despite the NSA program, "[t]he agency ... still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications." An article from February 5, 2006 in the Washington Post reported that the program had netted few suspects.

In a speech on January 25, 2006, Bush said, "I have the authority, both from the Constitution and the Congress, to undertake this vital program," telling the House Republican Caucus at their February 10 conference in Maryland that "I wake up every morning thinking about a future attack, and therefore, a lot of my thinking, and a lot of the decisions I make are based upon the attack that hurt us."

President Bush reacted to a May 10 domestic call records article in USA Today by restating his position, that it is "not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."

Congressional response

Three days after news broke about the warrantless wiretapping program, a bipartisan group of Senators—Democrats Dianne Feinstein of Californiamarker, Carl Levin of Michiganmarker, Ron Wyden of Oregonmarker and Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraskamarker and Olympia Snowe of Mainemarker, sent a letter dated December 19, 2005 to Judiciary and Intelligence Committees chairmen and ranking members requesting the two committees to "seek to answer the factual and legal questions" about the program.

On January 25, 2006, in response to the administration's asserted legal justification of the NSA program being based in part on the AUMF, Senators Leahy (D-VT) and Kennedy (D-MA) introduced Resolution 350 to the Judiciary Committee that purported to express a "sense of the Senate" that the AUMF "does not authorize warrantless domestic surveillance of United States citizens". Resolution 350 has not been reported out of committee and has no effect.

In introducing their resolution to committee, they quoted Justice O'Connor's opinion that even war "is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens."

Additionally, they asserted their opinion that the US DOJ legal justification for the NSA program was a "manipulation of the law" similar to other "overreaching" and "twisted interpretations" in recent times. Leahy and Kennedy also asserted that Attorney General Gonzales "admitted" at a press conference on December 19, 2005, that the Administration did not seek to amend FISA to authorize the NSA spying program because it was advised that "it was not something we could likely get." (However, as noted below under "Proposed Amendments to FISA", Gonzales has made clear that what he actually said was that such an amendment was "not something [they] could likely get" without disclosing the nature of the program and operational limitations and that it was believed that such disclosure would be damaging to national security.)

Leahy and Kennedy also asserted that in their view the procedures being followed in the NSA program, specifically, the ongoing 45 day reapproval by the Attorney General, the White House Counsel and the Inspector General of the National Security Agency, was "not good enough" because each of these is an executive branch appointees who in turn report directly to the Executive. Finally, they concluded that Congressional and Judicial oversight were fundamental and should not be unilaterally discarded. Resolution 350 has not been reported out of committee.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, in a three-page letter dated June 7, 2006 to Vice President Dick Cheney, to prompt the Administration to provide: input on his proposed legislation, briefings to his committee about the program, and more cooperation with Congressional oversight. Specter also wrote about the Vice President lobbying the other Republican members of the Judiciary Committee about compelling telephone companies to testify about classified information.

More recently, in February, 2008, the Bush Administration backed a new version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that would grant telecom companies retroactive immunity from lawsuits stemming from the alleged surveillance. On March 13, 2008 the U.S. House of Representatives held a secret session to discuss classified information relating to the new FISA. On March 14, the House passed a bill that would not grant the immunity sought by the Bush administration.

Legal developments

Congressionally proposed FISA amendments

The Administration has contended that amendment was unnecessary because they believe that the President had inherent authority to approve the NSA program, and that the process of amending FISA might require disclosure of classified information that could harm national security. In response, Senator Leahy said, "If you do not even attempt to persuade Congress to amend the law, you must abide by the law as written." President Bush claims that he can ignore the law because he claims that the Constitution gives him "inherent authority" to do so.

However, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has stated that the Bush administration chose not to ask Congress for an amendment to FISA to authorize such wiretaps explicitly because it would have been difficult to get such an amendment without compromising classified information relating to operational details. "This is not a backdoor approach. We believe Congress has authorized this kind of surveillance. We have had discussions with Congress in the past -- certain members of Congress -- as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible." Some politicians and commentators have used this statement -- “would be difficult, if not impossible” -- to argue that the Administration declined to seek a specific amendment to FISA because the administration believed Congress would have rejected it. However, later in the same briefing Gonzales clarified his earlier remark to say that the administration had been advised that amendment was something they were not likely to get "without jeopardizing the existence of the program." At another briefing, two days later, Gonzales made this point again:

Finally, in his written Responses to Questions from Senator Specter in which Specter specifically asked why the administration had not sought to amend FISA to accommodate the NSA program, Gonzales wrote:

Nevertheless, competing legislative proposals to authorize the NSA program subject to Congressional or FISA court oversight have been proposed and have been the subject of Congressional hearings throughout the summer.

On March 16, 2006, Senators Mike DeWine (R-OH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced the Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006 (S.2455), under which the President would be given certain additional limited statutory authority to conduct electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States subject to enhanced Congressional oversight. Also on March 16, 2006, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced The National Security Surveillance Act of 2006 (S.2453), which would amend FISA to grant retroactive amnesty for warrantless surveillance conducted under presidential authority and provide FISA court (FISC) jurisdiction to review, authorize, and oversight "electronic surveillance programs." On May 24, 2006, Senator Specter and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Improvement and Enhancement Act of 2006 (S.3001) asserting FISA as the exclusive means to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance.

On September 13, 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve all three mutually exclusive bills, thus, leaving it to the full Senate to resolve.

On July 18, 2006, U.S. Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM) introduced the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act (H.R. 5825). Wilson's bill would give the President the authority to authorize electronic surveillance of international phone calls and e-mail linked specifically to identified terrorist groups immediately following or in anticipation of an armed or terrorist attack on the United States. Surveillance beyond the initial authorized period would require a FISA warrant or a presidential certification to Congress. On September 28, 2006 the House of Representatives passed Wilson's bill and it was referred to the Senate.

Each of these bills would in some form broaden the statutory authorization for electronic surveillance, while still subjecting it to some restrictions. The Specter-Feinstein bill would extend the peacetime period for obtaining retroactive warrants to seven days and implement other changes to facilitate eavesdropping while maintaining FISA court oversight. The DeWine bill, the Specter bill, and the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act (already passed by the House) would all authorize some limited forms or periods of warrantless electronic surveillance subject to additional programmatic oversight by either the FISC (Specter bill) or Congress (DeWine and Wilson bills).

FISA court order

On January 18, 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee "Court orders issued last week by a Judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will enable the government to conduct electronic surveillance – very specifically, surveillance into or out of the United States where there is probable cause to believe that one of the communicants is a member or agent of al Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization – subject to the approval of the FISA Court. We believe that the court’s orders will allow the necessary speed and agility the government needs to protect our Nation from the terrorist threat." The ruling by the FISA Court was the result of a two-year effort between the White House and the court to find a way to obtain court approval that also would "allow the necessary speed and agility" to find terrorists, Gonzales said in a letter to the top committee members. The "innovative" court order on Jan. 10 will do that, Gonzales wrote. Senior Justice department officials would not say whether the orders provided individual warrants for each wiretap or whether the court had given blanket legal approval for the entire NSA program. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement that "without more information about what the secret FISA court has authorized, there is no way to determine whether the NSA's current activities are lawful." Chip Pitts of Stanford Law School argues that substantial legal questions remain regarding the core NSA program as well as the related data mining program (and the use of National Security Letters), despite the government's apparently bringing the NSA program within the purview of the FISA law.

FISCR Ruling of August 2008

In August 2008, the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review affirmed the constitutionality of the Protect America Act of 2007 in a heavily redacted opinion released on January 15, 2009, which is only the second such public ruling since the enactment of the FISA Act.

Legal developments Obama

See also


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