In its waning days, the Bush administration has suffered a few adverse rulings from the courts on the broad issue of executive power.
But it looks like it’s about to get a major one in its favor on the issue of warrantless wiretapping. The New York Times reports:
A federal intelligence court, in a rare public opinion, is expected to issue a major ruling validating the power of the president and Congress to wiretap international phone calls and intercept e-mail messages without a court order, even when Americans’ private communications may be involved.
In other words, at least according to this court, the administration didn’t need to get a warrant after all for its controversial domestic spying program. As the Times puts it, the decision “may offer legal credence to the Bush administration’s repeated assertions that the president has constitutional authority to act without specific court approval in ordering national security eavesdropping.”
The Times explains that the court did not directly rule on the legality of the NSA’s controversial secret wiretapping program, conducted between 2001 and 2007, which the same paper first revealed in 2005. Rather, in 2007, Congress passed the Protect America Act, which gave the executive branch the power to listen in on international communications. The constitutionality of that law was challenged by a telecom company. The FISA court, in a secret decision last year, upheld the law, and now an appeals court has agreed.
All the same, this is the first time that an appeals court has ruled on the constitutionality of the president’s power to eavesdrop, and the decision could be a boost for other telecom companies who are being sued for cooperating with the program.
Late Update: The ruling itself has now been released, and several commentators, including Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, make the case that the Times erred in its characterization, and that the ruling bears on a narrower question. Writes Greenwald:
[I]t merely concluded that the warrantless eavedsdropping powers authorized by Congress under the (now-expired) Protect America Act do not violate the Fourth Amendment because, the court found, there is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for foreign intelligence gathering. It’s a bad ruling (and should be reviewed by the Supreme Court), but it has nothing to do with the President’s authority to override statutes generally or violate FISA specifically…
So this ruling may not be as far-reaching as the Times appeared to suggest.