The Founding Fathers would be alarmed by President George W. Bush’s “trust me” defense for collecting foreign intelligence in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Constitution’s separation of powers.
The president insists that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been confined to spying on American citizens who are “known” al Qaeda sympathizers or collaborators. Mr. Bush avows that he knows the eavesdropping targets are implicated in terrorism because his subordinates have said so; and, they are honorable men and women with no interest in persecuting or harassing the innocent. Presidential infallibility and angelic motives should be taken on faith alone, like a belief in salvation.
But the Founding Fathers fashioned sterner stuff to protect individual liberties and to forestall government oppression, i.e., a separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. James Madison elaborated in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices are necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
The separation of powers does not guarantee against government overreaching in wartime or otherwise. Congress, the president and the Supreme Court may all succumb to exaggerated fears or prejudices. Thus, Japanese Americans were held in concentration camps during World War II with the approval of all three branches. But requiring a consensus militates in favor of measured and balanced war policies. The commander in chief is inclined to inflate claims of military necessity, as the Japanese American injustice exemplifies.
Approximately 112,000 were evacuated to concentration camps to thwart sabotage or espionage on the West Coast. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, acting through commanding Gen. John L. DeWitt, maintained that Japanese ancestry, simpliciter, made them suspect. DeWitt relied on racist thinking outside the domain of military expertise.
In his Final Report on the evacuation from the Pacific Coast area, the commanding general refers to individuals of Japanese descent as “subversive,” as belonging to “an enemy race” whose “racial strains are undiluted,” and as constituting “over 112,000 potential enemies.” But he summoned no plausible evidence to support the indictment. During the nearly four months that elapsed between Pearl Harbor and the concentration camps, not a single person of Japanese ancestry was either accused or convicted of espionage or sabotage. Enlisting the “Who stole the tarts” precedent in Alice in Wonderland, DeWitt obtusely maintained that unwavering loyalty proved imminent treason: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”
It was said that case-by-case vetting of Japanese Americans for disloyalty was infeasible. But it was done for persons of German and Italian ancestry. The British government established tribunals to determine the loyalties of 74,000 German and Austrian aliens. Approximately 64,000 were freed from internment and from any special restrictions.
The maltreatment of Japanese Americans probably impaired the war effort. Despite the concentration camps, 33,000 served in the United States military. The famed 100th Battalion earned 900 Purple Hearts fighting its way through Italy. A greater number would have joined the armed forces if they not been wrongly suspected and degraded.
Like Roosevelt and DeWitt, President Bush claims military necessity for the NSA’s eavesdropping on the international communications of Americans without adherence to FISA. The hope is to establish an early warning system to detect and prevent new editions of September 11, 2001. In a Dec. 22, 2005 letter to Congress, the Department of Justice asserted: “FISA could not have provided the speed and agility required for the early warning detection system. In addition, any legislative change … that the President might have sought specifically to create such an early warning system would have been public and would have tipped off our enemies concerning our intelligence limitations and capabilities.”
But FISA crowns the president with electronic surveillance powers without a court warrant for 15 days after a congressional declaration of war. That duration could have been indefinitely extended by Congress without alerting terrorists to anything new. Further, Congress might have been asked to lower the threshold of suspicion required to initiate surveillance without compromising intelligence sources or methods. Indeed, President Bush’s continuation of the NSA’s spying despite the disclosure by the New York Times discredits the argument that secrecy was indispensable to its effectiveness. On the other hand, congressional involvement in the early warning system would provide an outside check on whether the commander in chief is targeting only persons linked to al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist organization.
To borrow from Justice Robert Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu v. United States (1944), the chilling danger created by President Bush’s claim of wartime omnipotence to justify the NSA’s eavesdropping is that the precedent will lie around like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of the incumbent or any successor who would reduce Congress to an ink blot.
Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant with Bruce Fein & Associates and The Lichfield Group.