President Taylor ~ Editorial

The Wall Street Journal

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

President Taylor
August 18, 2006; Page A14

In our current era of polarized politics, it was probably inevitable that some judge somewhere would strike down the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps as unconstitutional. The temptations to be hailed as Civil Libertarian of the Year are just too great.

So we suppose a kind of congratulations are due to federal Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, who won her 10 minutes of fame yesterday for declaring that President Bush had taken upon himself "the inherent power to violate not only the laws of the Congress but the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution, itself." Oh, and by the way, the Jimmy Carter appointee also avers that "there are no hereditary Kings in America." In case you hadn't heard.

The 44-page decision, which concludes by issuing a permanent injunction against the wiretapping program, will doubtless occasion much rejoicing among the "imperial Presidency" crowd. That may have been part of her point, as, early in the decision, Judge Taylor refers with apparent derision to "the war on terror of this Administration."

We can at least be grateful that President Taylor's judgment won't be the last on the matter. The Justice Department immediately announced it will appeal and the injunction has been stayed for the moment. But her decision is all the more noteworthy for coming on the heels of the surveillance-driven roll up of the terrorist plot in Britain to blow up U.S.-bound airliners. In this environment, monitoring the communications of our enemies is neither a luxury nor some sinister plot to chill domestic dissent. It is a matter of life and death.

So let's set aside the judge's Star Chamber rhetoric and try to examine her argument, such as it is. Take the Fourth Amendment first. The "unreasonable search and seizure" and warrant requirements of that amendment have their roots in the 18th-century abuses of the British crown. Those abuses involved the search and arrest of the King's political opponents under general and often secret warrants.

Judge Taylor sees an analogy here, but she manages to forget or overlook that no one is being denied his liberty and no evidence is being brought in criminal proceedings based on what the NSA might learn through listening to al Qaeda communications. The wiretapping program is an intelligence operation, not a law-enforcement proceeding. Congress was duly informed, and not a single specific domestic abuse of such a wiretap has yet been even alleged, much less found.

As for the First Amendment, Judge Taylor asserts that the plaintiffs -- a group that includes the ACLU and assorted academics, lawyers and journalists who believe their conversations may have been tapped but almost surely weren't -- had their free-speech rights violated because al Qaeda types are now afraid to speak to them on the phone.

But the wiretapping program is not preventing anyone from speaking on the phone. Quite the opposite -- if the terrorists stopped talking on the phone, there would be nothing to wiretap. Perhaps the plaintiffs should have sued the New York Times, as it was that paper's disclosure of the program that created the "chill" on "free speech" that Judge Taylor laments.

The real nub of this dispute is the Constitution's idea of "inherent powers," although those two pages of her decision are mostly devoted to pouring scorn on the very concept. But jurists of far greater distinction than Judge Taylor have recognized that the Constitution vests the bulk of war-making power with the President. It did so, as the Founders explained in the Federalist Papers, for reasons of energy, dispatch, secrecy and accountability.

Before yesterday, no American court had ever ruled that the President lacked the Constitutional right to conduct such wiretaps. President Carter signed the 1978 FISA statute that established the special court to approve domestic wiretaps even as his Administration declared it was not ceding any Constitutional power. And in the 2002 decision In Re: Sealed Case, the very panel of appellate judges that hears FISA appeals noted that in a previous FISA case (U.S. v. Truong), a federal "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 couldn't find Judge Taylor's attempt to grapple with those precedents, perhaps because they'd have interfered with the lilt of her purple prose.

Unlike Judge Taylor, Presidents are accountable to the voters for their war-making decisions, as the current White House occupant has discovered. Judge Taylor can write her opinion and pose for the cameras -- and no one can hold her accountable for any Americans who might die as a result.

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