Beating a Dead Horse With a New Stick—Once More on Wiretapping

Slate's blog on legal issues.
May 23 2008 9:22 PM

Beating a Dead Horse With a New Stick—Once More on Wiretapping

The current Bush administration defense of its Terrorist Surveillance Program, known to some as the illegal domestic spying program, leans heavily for its legal justifiation on the Authorization To Use Military Force, which was passed right after 9/11. The argument is that the AUMF is a later-enacted, more specific measure, and that it therefore supersedes the more general and earlier adopted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. By this means, presto, the AUMF authorized warrantless wiretapping consistent with the terms of that later-enacted statute. Many in

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are already on record saying that they never intended the AUMF to have that consequence and that evidence of legislative intention has bolstered arguments by many opponents of the program that the administration's statutory claim is risible. But now this recent

reinforces that judgment. It indicates that the Bush administration lawyers who were around when the AUMF was negotiated also did not think the AUMF had that consequence. Their initial theory, the new disclosure indicates, was that, even aside from their broad views about the president's power as commander in chief to override conflicting statutes, FISA itself contained an implied exception for the president to do what needed to be done. The AUMF argument, then, was something that the administration came up only with much later. But if neither the congressional leaders nor the Bush administration lawyers who actually negotiated the AUMF's passage thought that vaguely worded measure sufficed to provide authority for warrantless wiretapping, then what exactly is the reason to think that the best reading of that statute is the one that is now being pushed by the administration? After all, it's one thing to contend that a vague, later-enacted statute supersedes an earlier one that is clear. It's quite another to argue that a later-adopted

interpretation

of that same statute should supersede the original one.