No need for Congress, no need for courts
I just this morning read the obviously significant USA Today article detailing the fact that the NSA is maintaining a comprehensive data base of every call made by every American – both internationally and domestically – whether they have anything to do with terrorism or not, obviously all of this without warrants or oversight of any kind. I'm not going to pretend to have all of the legal issues figured out in two hours, and so I won't yet opine as to whether there are serious grounds for arguing either that this is legal or that it’s illegal.
But there is one highly significant, and revealing, item buried in the USA Today article regarding Qwest's refusal to cooperate with the NSA’s demands (and it heroic refusal to capitulate to the NSA’s intimidation tactics and threats) that it turn over its customers' calling data:
The NSA, which needed Qwest's participation to completely cover the country, pushed back hard.
Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.
In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.
Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.
The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.
This theme emerges again and again. We continuously hear that the Bush administration has legal authority to do anything the President orders. Claims that he is acting illegally are just frivolous and the by-product of Bush hatred. And yet, as I detailed here, each and every time the administration has the opportunity to obtain an adjudication of the legality of its conduct from a federal court (which, unbeknownst to the administration, is the branch of our government which has the authority and responsibility to interpret and apply the law), it does everything possible to avoid that adjudication.
This continuous evasion of judicial review by the administration is much more serious and disturbing than has been discussed and realized. By proclaiming the power to ignore Congressional law and to do whatever it wants in the area of national security, it is seizing the powers of the legislative branch. But by blocking courts from ruling on the multiple claims of illegality which have been made against it, the administration is essentially seizing the judicial power as well. It becomes the creator, the executor, and the interpreter of the law. And with that, the powers of all three branches become consolidated in The President, the single greatest nightmare of the founders. As Madison warned in Federalist 47:
From these facts, by which Montesquieu was guided, it may clearly be inferred that, in saying "There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates," or, "if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers," he did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other.
His meaning, as his own words import, and still more conclusively as illustrated by the example in his eye, can amount to no more than this, that where the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department, the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted. This would have been the case in the constitution examined by him, if the king, who is the sole executive magistrate, had possessed also the complete legislative power, or the supreme administration of justice; or if the entire legislative body had possessed the supreme judiciary, or the supreme executive authority.
The attribute which most singularly defines this administration is its insistence that our Government is based on unilateral and unreviewed Presidential Decree. The President directs the telecom companies to turn over this information and they obey. That’s how our Government works, as they see it. And if the telecom companies are concerned about their legal liability as a result of laws which strongly suggest that they are acting illegally if they comply with the President’s Decree, and thus request a judicial ruling first, that request, too, is denied. There is no need for a judicial ruling once the President speaks. What he orders is, by definition, legal, and nobody can say otherwise, including courts.
Amazingly, again and again, they don't even want their own Justice Department to know what they are doing because they are afraid that DoJ lawyers will tell them that it is against the law. They don't want to hear that it is against the law. As USA Today reported: "For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events." They know very well that their conduct might be, and in some cases that it is definitely is, illegal, but they are purposely avoiding having the DoJ be able to opine on the legality of their behavior.
That is the same inherently corrupt motive which led the NSA to refuse to give DoJ lawyers security clearance to enable the DoJ to investigate whether their lawyers acted unethically in connection with the NSA illegal eavesdropping program. As intended, that refusal caused the DoJ to shut down its investigation. As Jack Balkin notes about that cover-up, also disclosed yesterday:
Note the irony: While private phone company employees at AT&T and other corporations must have sufficient security clearances to know what is going on in the NSA program- because they are helping to run it-- the Justice Department's own ethics lawyers do not. It's a convenient way to forestall any investigation into wrongdoing.
They desperately avoid not only a ruling from a court as to whether their conduct is legal, but also opinions from their own Justice Department lawyers, likely driven by the fact that many DoJ lawyers opined that the NSA program was illegal -- something they do not want to ever hear again.
Ultimately, I think that the impact of this disclosure may be more political than legal. I think most Americans will find it simply creepy that the Administration bullied the telecom companies to provide them with data to enable it to keep track of every single call every American ever makes, no matter who they are.
But beyond that, when the NSA scandal first broke, the administration’s principal political defense was to continuously assure Americans that they were eavesdropping only on international calls, not domestic calls. Many, many Americans do not ever make any international calls, and it was an implicit way of assuring the heartland that the vast bulk of the calls they make – to their Aunt Millie, to arrange Little League practice, to cite just a few of the administration’s condescending examples – were not the type of calls being intercepted. The only ones with anything to worry about were the weird and suspect Americans who call overseas to weird and suspect countries. If you’re not calling Pakistan or Iran, the Government has no interest in what you’re doing.
That has all changed. We now learn that when Americans call their Aunt Millie, or their girlfriend, or their psychiatrist, or their drug counselor, or their priest or rabbi, or their lawyer, or anyone and everyone else, the Government is very interested. In fact, they are so interested that they make note of it and keep it forever, so that at any time, anyone in the Government can look at a record of every single person whom every single American ever called or from whom they received a call. It doesn't take a professional privacy advocate to find that creepy, invasive, dangerous and un-American.
UPDATE: Two additional points worth making: (1) One of the disturbing aspects of the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program was that it was seen by many intelligence professionals as a radical departure from the agency's tradition of not turning its spying capabilities on the American public domestically. The program disclosed yesterday decimates that tradition by many magnitudes. This is a program where the NSA is collecting data on the exclusively domestic communications of Americans, communicating with one another, on U.S. soil -- exactly what the NSA was supposed to never do.
(2) The legal and constitutional issues, especially at first glance and without doing research, reading cases, etc., are complicated and, in the first instance, difficult to assess, at least for me. That was also obviously true for Qwest's lawyers, which is why they requested a court ruling and, when the administration refused, requested an advisory opinion from DoJ.
But not everyone is burdened by these difficulties. Magically, hordes of brilliant pro-Bush legal scholars have been able to determine instantaneously -- as in, within hours of the program's disclosure -- that the program is completely legal and constitutional (just like so many of them were able confidently to opine within hours of the disclosure of the warrantless eavesdropping program that it, too, was perfectly legal and constitutional). Having said that, there are some generally pro-Bush bloggers expressing serious skepticism over the legality and/or advisability of this program.