The New York Times' Christmas gift -- sorry, holiday gift -- to the nation's political dialogue was its Dec. 16 story reporting that the National Security Agency has been intercepting telephone conversations between terrorism suspects abroad and U.S. citizens or legal residents in the United States.
What the Times didn't bother telling its readers is that this practice is far from new and is entirely legal. Instead, the unspoken subtext of the story was that this was likely an illegal and certainly a very scary invasion of Americans' rights.
Let's put the issue very simply. The president has the power as commander in chief under the Constitution to intercept and monitor the communications of America's enemies. Indeed, it would be a very weird interpretation of the Constitution to say that the commander in chief could order U.S. forces to kill America's enemies but not to wiretap -- or, more likely these days, electronically intercept -- their communications. Presidents have asserted and exercised this power repeatedly and consistently over the last quarter-century.
To be sure, federal courts have ruled that the Fourth Amendment's bar of "unreasonable" searches and seizures limits the president's power to intercept communications without obtaining a warrant. But that doesn't apply to foreign intercepts, as the Supreme Court made clear in a 1972 case, writing, "The instant case requires no judgment on the scope of the president's surveillance power with respect to the activities of foreign powers, within or without this country." The federal courts of appeals for the 5th, 3rd, 9th and 4th Circuits, in cases decided in 1970, 1974, 1977 and 1980, took the same view. In 2002, the special federal court superintending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wrote, "The Truong court, as did all the other courts to have decided the issue, held that the president did have inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information. ... We take for granted that the president does have that authority and, assuming that is so, FISA could not encroach on the president's constitutional power."
Warrantless intercepts of the communications of foreign powers were undertaken as long ago as 1979, by the Carter administration. In 1994, Bill Clinton's deputy attorney general, Jamie Gorelick, testified to Congress, "The Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes."