It was instantly clear after Sept. 11, 2001, that our security agencies knew little about al Qaeda's inner workings, could not detect its operatives' entry into the country, nor predict where it might strike next.
Suppose an al Qaeda cell in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles was planning a second attack using small arms, conventional explosives or even biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies faced a near impossible task locating them. Now suppose the National Security Agency (NSA), which collects signals intelligence, threw up a virtual net to intercept all electronic communications leaving and entering Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan headquarters. What better way of detecting follow-up attacks? And what president--of either political party--wouldn't immediately order the NSA to start, so as to find and stop the attackers?
Evidently, none of the inspectors general of the five leading national security agencies would approve. In a report issued last week, they suggested that President George W. Bush might have violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by ordering the interception of international communications of terrorists without a judicial warrant. The report also suggests that "other" intelligence measures--still classified only because they are yet to be reported on the front page of the New York Times--similarly lacked approval from other branches of government.
It is absurd to think that a law like FISA should restrict live military operations against potential attacks on the United States. Congress enacted FISA during the waning days of the Cold War. As the 9/11 Commission found, FISA's wall between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence proved dysfunctional and contributed to our government's failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks.
Under FISA, to obtain a judicial wiretapping warrant the government is supposed to show probable cause that a specified target is a foreign agent. Unlike, say, Soviet spies working under diplomatic cover, terrorists are hard to identify. Yet they are vastly more dangerous. Monitoring their likely communications channels is the best way to track and stop them. Building evidence to prove past crimes, as in the civilian criminal system, is entirely beside the point. The best way to find an al Qaeda operative is to look at all email, text and phone traffic between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the U.S. This might involve the filtering of innocent traffic, just as roadblocks and airport screenings do.
In FISA, President Bush and his advisers faced an obsolete law not written with live war with an international terrorist organization in mind. It was to meet such emergency circumstances that the Founders designed the presidency. As John Locke first observed, foreign threats "are much less capable to be directed by antecedent, standing, positive laws." Legislatures are too slow and their members too numerous to respond effectively to unforeseen situations. Only the executive can act to protect the "security and interest of the public."
The power to protect the nation, said Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist, "ought to exist without limitation," because "it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent & variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them." To limit the president's constitutional power to protect the nation from foreign threats is simply foolhardy. Hamilton observed that "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man, in a much more eminent degree, than the proceedings of any greater number." "Energy in the executive," he reiterated, "is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks."
Clearly, the five inspectors general were responding to the media-stoked politics of recrimination, not consulting the long history of American presidents who have lived up to their duty in times of crisis. More than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the FBI to intercept any communications, domestic or international, of persons "suspected of subversive activities . . . including suspected spies." FDR did not hesitate long over a 1937 Supreme Court opinion (United States v. Nardone) interpreting federal law to prohibit electronic surveillance without a warrant. It is too late to do anything about it after sabotage, assassinations and 'fifth column' activities are completed," he wrote in a secret 1940 memo authorizing the wire tapping. Indeed, he continued to authorize the surveillance even after Congress rejected proposals from his attorney general, Robert Jackson, to authorize national security wiretapping without a warrant.
Every federal appeals court to address the question has agreed that the president may gather electronic intelligence to protect against foreign threats. This includes the special FISA appeals court, which in a 2002 sealed case upholding the constitutionality of the Patriot Act held that "the President did have inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information." The court said it took the president's power "for granted," observing that "FISA could not encroach on the President's constitutional power."
Now, according to the inspectors general, those of us in government following the 9/11 terrorist attacks should have assumed that the usual peacetime rules for domestic wiretaps applied and interpreted FISA in a most curious way--to delete the president's traditional authority as commander in chief to collect signals intelligence in wartime.
The 1952 Supreme Court case of Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer is the IG's lodestar. In Youngstown, the Court addressed President Harry Truman's effort to seize steel mills shut down by a labor strike during the Korean War. Truman claimed that maintaining production was necessary to supply munitions and material to American troops in combat. Youngstown correctly found that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the exclusive power to make law concerning labor disputes. It does not, however, address the scope of the president's power involving military strategy or tactics in war. If anything, it supports the proposition that one branch cannot intrude on the clear constitutional turf of another.
Moreover, earlier Justice Departments--reaching across several administrations from both parties--had likewise concluded that Youngstown did not limit the president's legitimate conduct of foreign affairs and national security policy. This is why all administrations have refused to accept the 1973 War Powers Resolution and have regularly engaged in military conflicts without congressional approval.
Our Constitution created a presidency whose function is to protect the nation from attack. Gathering intelligence--including intercepting enemy communications--has long been a key aspect of war. Our military and intelligence agencies cannot attack or defend the nation unless they know where to aim. As we confront terrorists who remain intent on attacking the U.S., using weapons we cannot anticipate, we should be skeptical of those who insist that we radically change the way this country has always made war.
John Yoo is a visiting scholar at AEI.