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Context of 'May 23, 1979: Carter Issues Executive Order Allowing Warrantless Wiretapping of Foreign Sources'

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President Jimmy Carter.President Jimmy Carter. [Source: The Sietch.org]President Jimmy Carter issues Executive Order 12036, in effect banning domestic surveillance by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. Carter writes, “No agency within the Intelligence Community shall engage in any electronic surveillance directed against a United States person abroad or designed to intercept a communication sent from, or intended for receipt within, the United States except as permitted by the procedures established pursuant to section 2-201.” That exception allows for the surveillance of US citizens in the case of acquiring “[i]nformation about the capabilities, intentions and activities of foreign powers, organizations, or persons and their agents…. The measures employed to acquire such information should be responsive to legitimate governmental needs and must be conducted in a manner that preserves and respects established concepts of privacy and civil liberties.” The order also flatly prohibits any assassinations by government officials, saying, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.… No agency of the Intelligence Community shall request or otherwise encourage, directly or indirectly, any person, organization, or government agency to undertake activities forbidden by this order or by applicable law.” [White House, 1/24/1978]

Entity Tags: James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Jimmy Carter issues Executive Order 12129, “Exercise of Certain Authority Respecting Electronic Surveillance,” which implements the executive branch details of the recently enacted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) (see 1978). [Jimmy Carter, 5/23/1979] The order is issued in response to the Iranian hostage crisis (see November 4, 1979-January 20, 1981). [Hawaii Free Press, 12/28/2005] While many conservatives will later misconstrue the order as allowing warrantless wiretapping of US citizens in light of the December 2005 revelation of George W. Bush’s secret wiretapping authorization (see Early 2002), [Think Progress, 12/20/2005] the order does not do this. Section 1-101 of the order reads, “Pursuant to Section 102(a)(1) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1802(a)), the Attorney General is authorized to approve electronic surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information without a court order, but only if the Attorney General makes the certifications required by that Section.” The Attorney General must certify under the law that any such warrantless surveillance must not contain “the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” The order does not authorize any warrantless wiretapping of a US citizen without a court warrant. [Jimmy Carter, 5/23/1979; 50 U.S.C. 1802(a); Think Progress, 12/20/2005] The order authorizes the Attorney General to approve warrantless electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence, if the Attorney General certifies that, according to FISA, the communications are exclusively between or among foreign powers, or the objective is to collect technical intelligence from property or premises under what is called the “open and exclusive” control of a foreign power. There must not be a “substantial likelihood” that such surveillance will obtain the contents of any communications involving a US citizen or business entity. [Federal Register, 2/4/2006]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, George W. Bush, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Clinton issues Executive Order 12949, which marginally extends the powers of the Justice Department to conduct warrantless surveillance of designated targets, specifically suspected foreign terrorists. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the order comes in the first section, which reads, “Pursuant to section 302(a)(1) of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] Act [FISA], the Attorney General is authorized to approve physical searches, without a court order, to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year, if the Attorney General makes the certifications required by that section.” [US President, 2/9/1995] As with then-president Jimmy Carter’s own May 1979 order extending the Justice Department’s surveillance capabilities (see May 23, 1979), after George W. Bush’s warrantless domestic wiretapping program will be revealed in December 2005 (see December 15, 2005), many of that program’s defenders will point to Clinton’s order as “proof” that Clinton, too, exercised unconstitutionally broad powers in authorizing wiretaps and other surveillance of Americans. These defenders will point to the “physical search” clause in Clinton’s order to support their contention that, if anything, Clinton’s order was even more egregrious than anything Bush will order. This contention is false. [50 U.S.C. 1802(a); Think Progress, 12/20/2005] Under FISA, the Attorney General must certify that any such physical search does not involve the premises, information, material, or property of a United States person.” That means US citizens or anyone inside the United States. Clinton’s order does not authorize warrantless surveillance or physical searches of US citizens. [US President, 2/9/1995; Think Progress, 12/20/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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