The act was scheduled to expire on Feb. 1, but it was extended for 15 days — until Friday — while the House and Senate thrash out competing bills to keep the program alive.
Congress and the White House are finally negotiating, after grappling with this threshold constitutional question: Who gets to decide whether the program strikes the right balance between civil liberties and national security — that is, whether it violates the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable” searches?
The Bush administration’s position had been consistent and uncompromising. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales put it this way: Article II of the Constitution says, “The executive power shall be vested in a president” who “shall be commander in chief” of the armed forces. That power, argued Gonzales, trumps any congressional action during time of war.
Presumably, if wartime security interests are implicated, the president can unilaterally authorize wiretaps of Americans anywhere, indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, library records searches, national security letters, secret CIA prisons, “enemy combatant” declarations, military tribunals and interrogation techniques that may have violated our treaty commitments.
Not so, said Justice Robert Jackson, concurring in Youngstown Sheet & Tube vs. Sawyer —the 1952 Supreme Court case denying President Harry Truman’s authority to seize the steel mills. First, wrote Jackson, when the president acts pursuant to an authorization from Congress, “his authority is at its maximum.” Second, when Congress has neither granted nor denied authority, “there is a zone of twilight in which (the president) and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain.” But third, where the president takes measures incompatible with the express or implied will of Congress, “his power is at its lowest.”
The secret Terrorist Surveillance Program fell in the third category: The president acted in the face of an express statutory prohibition in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Most presidents, when they think a law is outdated or ineffective or otherwise ill advised, ask Congress to amend or repeal the law. President Bush took a shortcut: He attempted for years to repeal FISA by himself by ignoring its provisions.