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Bush administration officials tell Senate Intelligence Committee members that they will not promise to continue seeking warrants for surveillance on US citizens, as the administration agreed to do in January 2007. They insist that President Bush has the Constitutional authority to decide whether or not to order the NSA to conduct surveillance without warrants if he desires. The secret wiretapping program was revealed to the public just weeks before the agreement (see December 15, 2005), and immediately drew tremendous outcries of criticism from civil libertarians, from lawmakers from all across the political spectrum, and from much of the public. Since the January agreement, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court has issued warrants for domestic wiretaps after being given evidence showing some kind of probable cause to justify the proposed surveillance. Previously, the wiretapping program had ignored the FISA restrictions. Now Bush officials, most notably the new director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, are saying that Bush has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to order warrantless wiretaps on US citizens.
Invoking Presidential Authority - In Senate testimony on this day, Russ Feingold (D-WI) asks McConnell if he is willing to promise that the administration will no longer ignore the law and the court when monitoring citizens. McConnell replies, “Sir, the president’s authority under Article II is in the Constitution. So if the president chose to exercise Article II authority, that would be the president’s call.” McConnell is echoing previous arguments made by Bush and other officials, who have said that Bush has the power to order wiretaps without court review, both under the Constitution and under the September 2001 Congressional authorization to use military force against al-Qaeda. McConnell says that the administration is conducting surveillance against Americans only with court warrants, and has no plans “that we are formulating or thinking about currently” to resume domestic wiretapping without warrants. “But I’d just highlight,” he adds, “Article II is Article II, so in a different circumstance, I can’t speak for the president what he might decide.” (Risen 5/2/2007) Article II is the section of the Constitution that delineates the powers of the executive branch, and establishes the fundamental “separation of powers” doctrine that governs American democracy. Constitutional expert Steve Mount notes that the “Constitution is deliberately inefficient; the “Separation of Powers devised by the framers of the Constitution was designed to do one primary thing: to prevent the majority from ruling with an iron fist.” (Mount 1995)
White House Seeking Congressional Authorization - While the administration continues to argue that it has the power to eavesdrop on US citizens without warrants, it also continues to seek Congressional legislation affirming and perhaps expanding that power. The White House justifies that hoped-for legislation by pointing to national security and the war on terrorism, as well as the challenges posed by new communications technologies such as e-mail and wireless communications. White House officials have consistently refused to go into specifics as to what communications gaps they feel need plugging. And they have consistently ignored Congressional requests for information and documents related to the NSA’s domestic spy program, now being called the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” by White House officials and their Republican colleagues. Many Congressional Democrats say they would be reluctant to support any such legislation until they receive the information they have requested. “To this day, we have never been provided the presidential authorization that cleared that program to go or the attorney general-Department of Justice opinions that declared it to be lawful,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). “Where’s the transparency as to the presidential authorizations for this closed program? That’s a pretty big ‘we’re not going to tell you’ in this new atmosphere of trust we’re trying to build.” (Risen 5/2/2007)
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