Wednesday, December 21, 2005

It's All About Power

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly has been out ahead of the pack on a very important issue that goes to the heart of the debate over President Bush’s secret directive to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on Americans without any oversight -- presidential powers in times of war and peace and the in-between time in which we seem to be living today.

I thought it was well worth posting Drum’s latest essay in its entirety:

Do President Bush's inherent constitutional powers as commander-in-chief give him the authority to override federal law and approve domestic spying by the NSA? That's certainly the justification he provided at Monday’s press conference:

“Do I have the legal authority to do this? And the answer is, absolutely. As I mentioned in my remarks, the legal authority is derived from the Constitution, as well as the authorization of force by the United States Congress.”

Bill Kristol and Gary Schmitt support this assessment in the Washington Post today, and they've been joined by a small army of other commentators.

Of course, their argument is not that the president has the inherent power to authorize domestic surveillance anytime he wants, only that he has that power during wartime. And as near as I can tell, that's the elephant in the room that no one is really very anxious to discuss: What is "wartime"? Is George Bush really a "wartime president," as he's so fond of calling himself? Conservatives take it for granted that he is, while liberals tend to avoid the subject entirely for fear of being thought unserious about the War on Terror. But it's something that ought be brought up and discussed openly.

Consider a different war, for example. It's safe to say that whatever Bush's NSA program actually involves, no one would have batted an eyelash if FDR had approved a similar program during World War II. Experience suggests that during a period of genuine, all-out war, few people complain when a president pushes the boundaries of the law based on military necessity. But aside from World War II, what else counts as wartime?

If you count only serious hot wars, the United States has been at war for over 20 of the 65 years since 1940. That's a lot of "wartime."

However, if you count the Cold War, as conservatives generally think we should, the tally shoots up to about 50 years of war. That means the United States has been almost continuously at war during the past 65 years — and given the nature of the War on Terror, we'll continue to be at war for the next several decades.

If this is how we define "wartime," it means that in the century from 1940 to 2040 the president will have had emergency wartime powers for virtually the entire time. But does that make sense? Is anyone really comfortable with the idea that three decades from now the president of the United States will have had wartime executive powers for nearly a continuous century?

Somehow we need to come to grips with this. There's "wartime" and then there's "wartime," and not all armed conflicts vest the president with emergency powers. George Bush may have the best intentions in the world — and in this case he probably did have the best intentions in the world — but that still doesn't mean he has the kind of plenary power Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt exercised during their wars.

During a genuine emergency, the president's powers are at their most expansive. The rest of the time they're more restricted, whether he considers himself a wartime president or not. Right now, if George Bush needs or wants greater authority than he currently has, he should ask Congress to give it to him — after all, they approve black programs all the time and are fully capable of holding closed hearings to debate sensitive national security issues. It's worth remembering that "regulation of the land and naval forces" is a power the constitution gives to Congress, and both Congress and the president ought to start taking that a little more seriously.

UPDATE: I haven't read all the comments, but a couple of emails have persuaded me that part of this post was sloppily worded. To make myself clear, then: although Presidents have increased authority during wartime, both in theory and in practice, that authority doesn't extend to deliberately violating acts of Congress. The president is required to obey the law during both war and peace. I've modified the post slightly to make that clearer.

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