Wednesday, December 21, 2005

President had legal authority to OK taps

So says John Schmitt who served form 1994 to 1997 as the associate attorney general of the United States.





By John Schmidt
Published December 21, 2005

President Bush's post- Sept. 11, 2001, authorization to the National Security Agency to carry out electronic surveillance into private phone calls and e-mails is consistent with court decisions and with the positions of the Justice Department under prior presidents.

The president authorized the NSA program in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. An identifiable group, Al Qaeda, was responsible and believed to be planning future attacks in the United States. Electronic surveillance of communications to or from those who might plausibly be members of or in contact with Al Qaeda was probably the only means of obtaining information about what its members were planning next. No one except the president and the few officials with access to the NSA program can know how valuable such surveillance has been in protecting the nation.

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The passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 did not alter the constitutional situation. That law created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that can authorize surveillance directed at an "agent of a foreign power," which includes a foreign terrorist group. Thus, Congress put its weight behind the constitutionality of such surveillance in compliance with the law's procedures.

But as the 2002 Court of Review noted, if the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches, "FISA could not encroach on the president's constitutional power."

Every president since FISA's passage has asserted that he retained inherent power to go beyond the act's terms. Under President Clinton, deputy Atty. Gen. Jamie Gorelick testified that "the Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes."

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