Unlike Sen. Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat seeking to censure President Bush for ordering the interception of communications in and out of the United States involving persons with suspected links to al-Qaeda, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt had no qualms about warrantless eavesdropping to protect the United States against attack.
Neither did Harry Truman.
There is a difference, however, between the eavesdropping Roosevelt and Truman authorized and the eavesdropping Bush is doing. Roosevelt and Truman did it in peacetime without congressional authorization. Bush is doing it during a war that Feingold voted on Sept. 14, 2001, to authorize.
Nonetheless, Roosevelt and Truman acted within their constitutional authority to defend the nation against attack. They were doing their duty, as is President Bush.
But in the Senate on Monday, while introducing his censure resolution, Feingold said, "The president's claims of inherent executive authority, and his assertions that the courts have approved this type of activity, are baseless."
FDR could not have agreed. On May 21, 1940, the United States was at peace, but Roosevelt wasn't taking chances. "It is too late to do anything about it after sabotage, assassination and 'fifth column' activities are completed," Roosevelt wrote Attorney General Robert Jackson in a memorandum cited by Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts in a letter he sent last month to Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter. "You are, therefore, authorized and directed in such cases as you may approve, after investigation of the need in each case, to authorize the necessary investigation agents that they are at liberty to secure information by listening devices directed to the conversation or other communications of persons suspected of subversive activities against the government of the United States, including suspected spies. You are requested furthermore to limit these investigations so conducted to a minimum and to limit them insofar as possible to aliens." (Emphasis added.)
Truman went further. Testifying before the Church Committee on Oct. 29, 1975, Attorney General Edward Levi quoted a letter that Attorney General Tom Clark sent Truman in 1946. Clark wanted to continue FDR's program. Warrantless eavesdropping, he argued, was needed "in cases vitally affecting the domestic security, or where human life is in jeopardy."
In his letter to Specter, Roberts notes that "Truman broadened the scope of the authorization by removing the caveat that such surveillance should be limited 'insofar as possible to aliens.'"