Sunday, December 25, 2005

Ho, Ho, Ho

Santa came down the chimney with the The Complete New Yorker. Very cool.

While Santa didn't drop it off, I did hear someone giving off hearty laughter and a belly shaking like a bowl full of jelly when I read this Barron's editorial.

AS THE YEAR WAS DRAWING TO A CLOSE, we picked up our New York Times and learned that the Bush administration has been fighting terrorism by intercepting communications in America without warrants. It was worrisome on its face, but in justifying their actions, officials have made a bad situation much worse: Administration lawyers and the president himself have tortured the Constitution and extracted a suspension of the separation of powers.

Much of it sounded like what I've written since the program was first revealed. And when the conservative editorial board at Barron's is talking like this, you know it's time for serious talk about impeachment.

Gonzales last week declined to declassify relevant legal reviews made by the Department of Justice.

Perhaps they were researched in a Star Chamber? Putting the president above the Congress is an invitation to tyranny. The president has no powers except those specified in the Constitution and those enacted by law. President Bush is stretching the power of commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy by indicating that he can order the military and its agencies, such as the National Security Agency, to do whatever furthers the defense of the country from terrorists, regardless of whether actual force is involved.

Surely the "strict constructionists" on the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary eventually will point out what a stretch this is. The most important presidential responsibility under Article II is that he must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." That includes following the requirements of laws that limit executive power. There's not much fidelity in an executive who debates and lobbies Congress to shape a law to his liking and then goes beyond its writ.

Willful disregard of a law is potentially an impeachable offense. It is at least as impeachable as having a sexual escapade under the Oval Office desk and lying about it later. The members of the House Judiciary Committee who staged the impeachment of President Clinton ought to be as outraged at this situation. They ought to investigate it, consider it carefully and report either a bill that would change the wiretap laws to suit the president or a bill of impeachment.

It is important to be clear that an impeachment case, if it comes to that, would not be about wiretapping, or about a possible Constitutional right not to be wiretapped. It would be about the power of Congress to set wiretapping rules by law, and it is about the obligation of the president to follow the rules in the Acts that he and his predecessors signed into law.

I swear to God, it's like they ripped this editorial from TfK. That last quoted paragraph is exactly right. The impeachment is about the president violating legitimately passed laws.

The editorial ends by tacitly calling the President and his legal advisors "the enemy." Even I haven't done that. But you can get away with that when you're certifiably conservative.

Also dropping down the chimney was a fascinating piece by a former CIA lawyer, and former counsel to the Intelligence Committees.

if administration officials believed they faced a scenario in which the FISA standard could not be met, they could have sought to amend the statute, as they have done several times since the law's enactment in 1978. Several such amendments, for example, were contained in the 2001 Patriot Act.

The administration reportedly did not think it could get an amendment without exposing details of the program. But this is not the first time the intelligence community has needed a change in the law to allow it to undertake sensitive intelligence activities that could not be disclosed. In the past, Congress and the administration have worked together to find a way to accomplish what was needed. It was never previously considered an option to simply decide that finding a legislative solution was too hard and that the executive branch could just ignore the law rather than fix it.

Moreover, the administration has yet to make the case for keeping this significant policy change secret for four years. It's hard to imagine that the terrorists do not already assume that we try to listen to their cell phone conversations (after all, it is well known that FISA allows such wiretaps) or that we have technology to help us search through reams of signals. (Check out the Wikipedia definition of Echelon on the Internet.) So what do the terrorists learn from a general public discussion about the legal authority being relied upon to target their conversations? Presumably very little. What does the American public lose by not having the public discussion? We lose the opportunity to hold our elected leaders accountable for what they do on our behalf.

Also of interest (given the author's experience at the CIA and in the Congress):

A resolution, such as the Use of Force resolution, does not provide statutory authority. Moreover, FISA specifically provides for warrantless surveillance for up to 15 days after a declaration of war. Why would Congress include that provision if a mere Use of Force resolution could render FISA inapplicable?

The law clearly states that the criminal wiretap statute and FISA are "the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance . . . and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted." If these authorities are exclusive, there is no other legal authority that can authorize warrantless surveillance.

Courts generally will not view such a clear statutory statement as having been overruled by a later congressional action unless there is an equally clear indication that Congress intended to do that.

This is a very polite way of saying that the President's defense is full of crap. She also finds the Hamdi defense unsatisfying, pointing to the sections TfK quoted, as well as the Youngtown Steel decision, which I quoted in the same context.

I'm not a lawyer, so it's nice to hear a lawyer with real experience in these trenches saying exactly what I've been saying.