Wednesday, March 15, 2006

It's Legal

In its opinion, the Court of Review said the FISA Court had, in effect, attempted to unilaterally impose the old 1995 rules. "In doing so, the FISA Court erred," the ruling read. "It did not provide any constitutional basis for its action — we think there is none — and misconstrued the main statutory provision on which it relied." The FISA Court, according to the ruling, "refus[ed] to consider the legal significance of the Patriot Act's crucial amendments" and "may well have exceeded the constitutional bounds" governing the courts by asserting "authority to govern the internal organization and investigative procedures of the Department of Justice."

And then the Court of Review did one more thing, something that has repercussions in today's surveillance controversy. Not only could the FISA Court not tell the president how do to his work, the Court of Review said, but the president also had the "inherent authority" under the Constitution to conduct needed surveillance without obtaining any warrant — from the FISA Court or anyone else. Referring to an earlier case, known as Truong, which dealt with surveillance before FISA was passed, the Court of Review wrote: "The Truong court, as did all the other courts to have decided the issue, held that the President did have inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information. . . . We take for granted that the President does have that authority and, assuming that is so, FISA could not encroach on the President's constitutional power."

It was a clear and sweeping statement of executive authority. And what was most likely not known to the Court of Review at the time was that the administration had, in 2002, started a program in which it did exactly what the Court of Review said it had the power to do: order the surveillance of some international communications without a warrant.

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