Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bush agrees to drop warrantless wiretapping

The Bush administration has reportedly agreed (WSJ, subscription required unfortunately) to stop the mass warrantless wiretapping that has created so much controversy over the past eighteen months. The Department of Justice has said that such activities will be brought back under the review of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. I suspect, as usual with these things, that the devil will be in the detail and Marty Lederman agrees:

"The President has "determined not to reauthorize the Terrorist Surveillance Program when the current authorization expires," and the Department of Justice will now submit its surveillance applications to the FISA Court for approval. Indeed, this volte-face apparently is the result of the fact that DOJ has convinced a FISA judge to issue "innovative and complex" orders in one precedential case already. So says a new letter from the AG to Senators Leahy and Specter.

According to the letter, the FISA court seems to have approved orders finding that at least part of the FISA statutory standard was [would be?] satisfied -- that "one of the communicants is a member or agent of Al Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization." (That's not quite the statutory standard, which requires that the target of the intercept be such an agent, and also that "each of the facilities or places at which the electronic surveillance is directed is being used, or is about to be used, by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.") It apparently took "considerable time and work" for DOJ to persuade the FISA judge to go along with whatever this newfangled sort of approval is. (According to Tony Snow, the FISA Court has promulgated "guidelines" and "rules" to govern this new form of approval.)

The ACLU case challenging the legality of the TSP is, at least for now, scheduled to be argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in two weeks...

The transcript of the background conference call with DOJ officials is here. The officials there claimed that the new procedures "will comply in all respects with the requirements of the FISA statute,"... One official did stress, however, that the orders "take advantage of . . . developments in the law before the FISA court." In other words, the FISA court apparently has been persuaded that in some respects the FISA statute is more forgiving than previously understood -- that it demands less proof or proof of a different kind than what the court once required. Orin Kerr provocatively surmises that perhaps what's going on here is a form of anticipatory warrant. It's unlikely that we'll know the details of this secret new internal law of FISA anytime soon.]...

Without knowing anything more about it, my sense is that this is probably a beneficial development, whatever its impetus might have been. I find it very difficult to imagine that the FISA court would roll over and approve an "innovative" legal theory if it were dubious -- especially not in this context, where DOJ has many incentives to get the FISA court on-board and where the congressional and public spotlight is shining so brightly. Without the New York Times, and Judge Taylor, and the 2006 election, this would never have happened. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and all . . . . Even though the public might never find out exactly what's up here, presumably Congress and the FISA court are now acting as some not-insignificant checks. And if so -- if the extreme and unilateral positions of the Executive are a thing of the past here, the system has worked."

It looks, on the surface, like a significant reigning in of presumed Executive powers for Mr Bush to back down on something this politically sensitive. Of course Marty Lederman and others have been arguing for some time that the president has been acting outside the constitutional checks on balances of his office in relation to his actions in approving the mass warrantless surveillance at the centre of this dispute. Jack Balkan thinks the motives are political:

in this case, the Administration insisted for months that the President did not need to follow the procedures in FISA, either because of the AUMF or because of inherent Presidential authority. Apparently, it has now retreated from that legally untenable position, hoping to moot, or at the very least disarm, federal litigation challenging the legality of the NSA program. Once again, the goal is to prevent a court from stating clearly that the President acted illegally and that his theories of executive power are self-serving hokum.

When we put these two stories together, a pattern emerges: the Administration repeatedly takes unreasonable positions about its powers. It insists that obedience to these views is necessary to the very survival of the Republic and that those who would dare to disagree are jeopardizing national security. It makes these aggressive claims repeatedly in every venue, hoping that others, cowed by its aggressive self-confidence and patriotic appeals, will be overawed and simply give in. It struts and boasts and threatens and exaggerates until its bluff is called, at which point its previous assertions simply become-- as they once put it in the Nixon Administration-- inoperative. Put another way, the Administration's stance on Presidential power has resembled nothing so much as an altogether familiar character, the neighborhood bully."

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