01/10/2006 05:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Larry Tribe on Spying: A Grave Abuse

Hearing on January 20

Amid the scandal about the President's secret spying on law-abiding Americans, I asked Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, the most respected legal scholar when it comes to constitutional questions, for his opinion. You can read his entire letter to me in plain text below or in pdf, but - as first reported by the Wall Street Journal - his analysis confirms my suspicions that this is an utterly lawless and unconstitutional act. My reading of his letter: from the perspective of legal scholarship, the Administration's justifications don't pass the laugh test. To cast a little more light on this issue, I announced today that I am calling Democratic hearings (though all are welcome) on this issue, on January 20 at 10am.

Professor Tribe begins by dissecting the Administration's attempts to minimize the secret spying. As he indicates, there are types of communications which contain so little content that the collection of it has been held to not be a "search or seizure," such as routing information on electronic communications. The President tried to cloud the issue by making it seem like these were the type of intercepts the NSA was gathering when he said "the program is one that listens to a few numbers" because "we want to know who they're calling..." Tribe charitably calls this "less than forthright," especially in light of the Attorney General's concession that the intercepts were much more than that.

Tribe also rejects the Administration's attempts to diminish this activity by claiming that it solely encompassed U.S. citizens' communications with "members of Al Qaeda." In fact, the Attorney General let slip that the program is far broader, so broad that, in Professor Tribe's view, the "definition casts so wide a net that no-one can feel certain of escaping its grasp."

He concludes that there is a "strong case" that the program likely violates the Fourth Amendment, especially in light of the lack of Congressional authorization for it. In terms of the legal precedents, Tribe concludes that when the secret spying is so far outside the category of allowable unilateral Presidential actions, that it "misses it by a mile".

He then turns to the argument that the resolution authorizing the use of force against Al Qaeda also authorized this secret spying and, in my favorite turn of phrase, states "[t]he technical legal term of that, I believe, is poppycock."

He concludes that the program is "as grave an abuse of executive authority as I can recall ever having studied." The entire letter is well worth a read.

The Honorable John Conyers, Jr.
United States House of Representatives
2426 Rayburn House Office Bldg.
Washington, DC 20515-2214

Dear Congressman Conyers:

I appreciate your interest in my views as a constitutional scholar regarding the
legality of the classified program of electronic surveillance by the National Security
Agency ("NSA") that the President authorized within months of the September 11, 2001,
attacks by Al Qaeda, a program whose existence the President confirmed on December
17, 2005, following its disclosure by The New York Times several days earlier.
Some have defended the NSA program as though it involved nothing beyond
computer-enhanced data mining used to trace the electronic paths followed by phone
calls and e-mails either originating from or terminating at points overseas associated with
terrorists or their affiliates or supporters. But that type of intelligence gathering, whose
history long antedates September 11, 2001, typically entails little or no interception of
communicative content that would make it a "search" or "seizure" as those terms are
understood for Fourth Amendment purposes (see Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979)
(the "pen register" case)), or "electronic surveillance" as that term is used in the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)(see 50 U.S.C. § 1801 (f)(1)-(2)). Unfortunately, as
Attorney General Gonzales candidly conceded in a press briefing on December 19, 2005,
the program under discussion here authorized precisely such interception of "contents of
communications." See

Although there may be room for debate about the boundary between content
interception and mere traffic analysis in other contexts, the Attorney General eliminated
speculation on the point when he said in that press briefing that the "surveillance that . . .
the President announced on [December 17]" is the "kind" that "requires a court order
before engaging in" it "unless otherwise authorized by statute or by Congress," and it is
undisputed that a court order is precisely what the Executive Branch chose to proceed
without. The President was therefore being less than forthright when, two weeks after admitting that he had authorized what the FISA defines as "electronic surveillance" that
would normally require a judicial warrant, he told reporters in Texas that the "NSA
program is one that listens to a few numbers" because "the enemy is calling somebody
and we want to know who they're calling . . . ." See
(1/3/2006). To be sure, the President did say "we want to know who they're calling and
why," to "find out what the enemy's thinking," hopefully alerting the attentive listener to
the possibility that the contents of individual messages are being intercepted. But by
centering the discussion on what sounds more like number-crunching than content-trawling,
the President encouraged the program's other apologists to depict it as relatively
innocuous by shifting attention away from precisely what makes this program of secret
surveillance so legally controversial.

Equally diversionary is the frequently repeated suggestion that, whatever the
program intercepts, the only messages it reaches are "communications, back and forth,
from within the United States to overseas with members of Al Qaeda," to quote the
Attorney General's December 19 press briefing. Again, however, the attentive listener
might have caught the more precise account the Attorney General let slip at another point
in that same briefing, when he noted that the surveillance that had been going on under
presidential auspices for roughly four years in fact reaches all instances in which "we . . .
have a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of
Al Qaeda, affiliated with Al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with Al
Qaeda or working in support of Al Qaeda." Given the breadth and elasticity of the
notions of "affiliation" and "support," coupled with the loosely-knit network of groups
that Al Qaeda is thought to have become, that definition casts so wide a net that no-one
can feel certain of escaping its grasp.

A strong case can be made that, even under the circumstances confronting the
United States in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks launched by Al Qaeda on September
11, 2001, and even with assurance that conversations are being intercepted solely to aid
in preventing future terrorist attacks rather than for use as evidence to prosecute past
misdeeds, so indiscriminate and sweeping a scheme of domestic intrusion into the private
communications of American citizens, predicated entirely on the unchecked judgment of
the Executive Branch, violates the Fourth Amendment "right of the people to be secure . .
. against unreasonable searches and seizures" even if it otherwise represents an exercise
of constitutional power entrusted to the President by Article II or delegated to the
President by Congress in exercising its powers under Article I.

The precise question of such a scheme's consistency with the Fourth Amendment
has never been judicially resolved -- nor is it likely to be resolved in this situation. For
the scheme in question, far from being authorized by Congress, flies in the face of an
explicit congressional prohibition and is therefore unconstitutional without regard to the
Fourth Amendment unless it belongs to that truly rare species of executive acts so central
to and inherent in the power vested in the President by Article II that, like the power to
propose or veto legislation or to issue pardons, its exercise cannot constitutionally be
fettered in any way by the Legislative Branch.

Any such characterization would be hard to take seriously with respect to
unchecked warrantless wiretapping. As the Supreme Court famously held in Youngstown
Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952), an emergency presidential takeover
for a limited time of certain critical publicly held corporations like Bethlehem Steele Co.
and the United States Steele Co., in order to avert the threat that would be posed to our
national security by a stoppage of the steel production needed for weapons and other
materials essential to the ongoing Korean War, falls outside that tiny category of
congressionally illimitable executive acts and is indeed unconstitutional unless
affirmatively authorized by Congress. If that is so, then certainly an unchecked
presidential program of secretly recording the conversations of perhaps thousands of
innocent private citizens in the United States in hopes of gathering intelligence
potentially useful for the ongoing war on a global terrorist network not only falls outside
that category but misses it by a mile.

The only escape from that conclusion would be to hold that inherent and
illimitable presidential power to abridge individual liberty and erode personal privacy
categorically exceeds presidential power to displace temporarily the corporate managers
of entirely impersonal business property, without confiscating, transferring, or otherwise
touching the property's ultimate ownership by the holders of its shares. But our
Constitution embodies no such perverse system of priorities.
The presidential power at issue in this case is therefore subject to the control of
Congress. And that Congress has indeed forbidden this exercise of power is clear. The
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 unambiguously limits warrantless domestic
electronic surveillance, even in a congressionally declared war, to the first 15 days of
that war; criminalizes any such electronic surveillance not authorized by statute; and
expressly establishes FISA and two chapters of the federal criminal code, governing
wiretaps for intelligence purposes and for criminal investigation, respectively, as the
"exclusive means by which electronic surveillance . . . and the interception of domestic
wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted." 50 U.S.C. §§ 1811, 1809,
18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f). The House version of the bill would have authorized the
President to engage in warrantless electronic surveillance for the first year of a war, but
the Conference Committee rejected so long a period of judicially unchecked
eavesdropping as unnecessary inasmuch as the 15-day period would "allow time for
consideration of any amendment to this act that may be appropriate during a wartime
emergency." H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 95-1720, at 34 (1978). If a year was deemed too long,
one can just imagine what the Conferees would have said of four years.
Rather than reaching for the heaviest (and, in this context, least plausible and
hence most ineffectual) artillery by claiming an inherent presidential power to spy on
innocent American citizens within the United States even in the teeth of a clear and
explicit congressional prohibition of that technique of intelligence-gathering beyond the
first 15 days of a declared war, the administration points to the FISA's own caveat that its
prohibitions are inapplicable to electronic surveillance that is "otherwise authorized" by a
congressional statute, which of course encompasses a joint resolution presented to and
signed by the President.

The Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda, Pub.L. No.
107-40, 115 Stat. 224 §2 (a) (2001), is just such a resolution, the administration claims,
for it authorizes the President to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against
"nations, organizations, or persons" associated with the terrorist attacks of September 11,
2001, in order to protect the nation from the recurrence of such aggression. Although
that resolution of course says nothing about electronic surveillance as such, neither does
it say anything specifically about the detention of enemy combatants fighting for Al
Qaeda in Afghanistan as part of the Taliban, the organization from within which the Al
Qaeda terrorist network launched those infamous attacks. Yet, in the face of
congressional legislation (the Non-Detention Act) expressly forbidding the executive
detention of any United States citizen except "pursuant to an Act of Congress," 18 U.S.C.
§ 4001(a), the Supreme Court in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 124 S.Ct. 2633 (2004), held that
such detention in the United States of individuals who are U.S. citizens captured while
fighting against American forces in Afghanistan "for the duration of the particular
conflict in which they were captured," in order to prevent them "from returning to the
field of battle and taking up arms once again," escapes the prohibition of that anti-detention
statute by virtue of its implied authorization by the AUMF as an exercise of the
"necessary and appropriate force" Congress authorized the President to use, a conclusion
supported by the fact that such detention for this limited purpose is a "fundamental and
accepted . . . incident to war." 124 S.Ct. at 2640.

If Hamdi treated the AUMF as an "explicit congressional authorization," 124
S.Ct. at 2640-41, for imprisoning an enemy combatant despite AUMF's failure to
mention "detention" or "imprisonment" in so many words, the argument goes, the AUMF
must be read to impliedly authorize the far less severe intrusion of merely eavesdropping
on our terrorist enemies, and on members of organizations that indirectly support them.
After all, the collection of "signals intelligence" about our enemies abroad is no less an
accepted incident of war than detaining the captured enemy -- just as signals intelligence
of foreign agents (including some going to and from the United States) has been accepted
as an inherent power of the President even in the absence of war. Surely, then, now that
Al Qaeda has launched a war against us, and now that Congress has responded with the
functional equivalent of a declaration of war in the AUMF, even the entirely innocent
American citizen in Chicago or Cleveland whose phone conversation with a member of
an Al Qaeda-supportive organization happens to be ensnared by the eavesdropping being
undertaken by the NSA cannot be heard to complain that no statute specifically
authorized the Executive to capture her telephone communications and e-mails as such.
Invasion of that citizen's privacy was, alas, but one of war's sad side effects -- a species
of collateral damage.

The technical legal term for that, I believe, is poppycock. Hamdi obviously rested
on the modest point that statutory authority to kill or gravely injure an enemy on the field
of battle impliedly authorizes one to take the far less extreme step of detaining that
enemy, solely for the duration of the battle, to prevent his return to fight against our
troops. Power to engage in domestic electronic surveillance on a wide scale within the
territorial United States -- intercepting, recording and transcribing conversations of
4unsuspecting citizens who have committed no wrong, are not foreign agents traveling to
and from the United States, and in fact pose no threat themselves but merely happen to
have accepted a phone call or received an e-mail from, or sent an e-mail to, a member of
an organization that is said to be supportive of the Al Qaeda network -- is by no stretch
of the legal imagination a "lesser included power" contained within the power to repel
future terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States.

Thus the argument that the AUMF does not impliedly authorize this wide-ranging
and indefinitely enduring program to extract potentially useful intelligence from ordinary
citizens easily survives challenge based on Hamdi. More than that, Hamdi in fact yields
added support for the conclusion that the AUMF cannot provide the requisite
authorization. For the Hamdi plurality agreed "that indefinite detention for the purpose of
interrogation," even of conceded enemy combatants, "is not authorized" by the AUMF.
124 S.Ct. at 2641 (emphasis added). It follows a fortiori that indefinite subjection of
American citizens who are not even alleged to be enemies, much less enemy combatants,
to ongoing invasions of their privacy in the United States for purposes of obtaining
valuable information is not authorized either.

Moreover, it makes a difference that the FISA's specific regulation of all
electronic surveillance in the United States deals with the subject at issue here in a far
more comprehensive and elaborate way than the Anti-Detention Statute involved in
Hamdi dealt with the military detentions at issue there -- military detentions that the
Court treated as falling within the Anti-Detention Statute merely for the sake of argument
when it held only that, if that statute otherwise applied, then it was trumped by the more
specifically relevant AUMF. Here, in contrast, there can be no serious doubt that it is the
FISA, and not the AUMF, that deals more specifically with the activity in question.
Construing the AUMF, taken in conjunction with the President's power as
Commander in Chief under Article II, as implicitly conferring broad authority to engage
in whatever warrantless surveillance the President might deem necessary in a war of
indefinite duration against Al Qaeda-related terrorism even in the face of FISA's
prohibitions would entail interpreting the AUMF far more broadly than anyone could, in
truth, have anticipated. If that AUMF authorization were indeed this broad, the President
must simply have overlooked its continued existence when he recently chided Congress
for failing to reenact the PATRIOT Act's provisions. To be sure, the AUMF, even on the
Justice Department's extravagant reading, enacted no criminal proscriptions of the sort
that parts of the PATRIOT Act included. Nor did it purport to authorize the President to
enact such criminal laws, morphing into some sort of one-man legislature. But, on the
government's broad reading, the AUMF certainly had armed the President, as of
September 18, 2001, with the authority to take most of the steps the PATRIOT Act
expressly authorized -- including all of the purely investigative and preventive actions it
empowered the President to take -- until the recent sunsetting of some of its provisions.
And it had empowered him as well, again on the government's reading, to override any
statutory prohibitions that might otherwise have stood in his way.

On the government's proposed reading of the AUMF, in other words, the
PATRIOT Act, insofar as it confers the powers of investigation and prevention most
fiercely sought by the President, becomes a needless and mostly redundant bauble. A
statutory construction with such bizarre and altogether unanticipated consequences --
and one that rests on so shaky a foundation -- would be inadmissible even if accepting it
would not leave us with serious questions under the Fourth Amendment, which it of
course would.

Finally, it is telling that Attorney General Gonzales, when asked in his December
19 press briefing why the administration hadn't simply proposed to Congress, in closed
session if necessary, that it amend FISA to grant legislative permission for the kind of
domestic surveillance program the President deemed essential to the nation's security,
replied that the administration had concluded such a request would probably have been
futile because Congress would most likely have denied the authority sought! To argue
that one couldn't have gotten congressional authorization (in late 2001, when the NSA
program was secretly launched) after arguing that, by the way, one did get congressional
authorization (in late 2001, when the AUMF was enacted) takes some nerve. Apart from
the obvious lapse in logic, it is axiomatic that legislative reluctance to relax or eliminate a
prohibition is no defense to a charge of its violation.

The inescapable conclusion is that the AUMF did not implicitly authorize what
the FISA expressly prohibited. It follows that the presidential program of surveillance at
issue here is a violation of the separation of powers -- as grave an abuse of executive
authority as I can recall ever having studied.

Yours truly, Laurence H. Tribe