The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on war powers have brought to light a number of less than entirely accurate assertions and assumptions about wartime authorities. Here are 10 of my favorites:
1. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) does not apply in wartime.
FISA specifically addresses wartime considerations:
Notwithstanding any other law, the president, through the attorney general, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for a period not to exceed fifteen calendar days following a declaration of war by the Congress.
2. The president has sole constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy.
Article II of the Constitution gives the president power to make treaties, but they must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate. Article I says that all bills for raising revenue — including appropriations for foreign aid — must originate in the House of Representatives.
3. The Bill of Rights becomes void in time of war.
Article I gives Congress the power to suspend the writ of the privilege of habeas corpus “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This is the only mention in the Constitution of infringement of a civil liberty in wartime.
Bush supporters have claimed this power also applies to the president, citing Lincoln’s suspension of the habeas writ to several war protesters during the Civil War. They neglect, however, to mention the case of ex parte Merriman, in which then-Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Congress alone had the constitutional authority to suspend the writ.
4. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 unconstitutionally limits the president’s ability to wage war.
This is one of Vice President Cheney’s favorite mantras, and like so much of what Dick Cheney says, it’s almost entirely delusional. A better argument says that the resolution is unconstitutional because it gives a president too much power.
In a nutshell the resolution limits to a maximum of 90 days the time in which a president may commit forces to combat without specific statutory authorization or a declaration of war from Congress.
The Constitution itself grants the president no authorities whatsoever to send troops into combat without Congressional approval.
5. In the case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court upheld the president’s right to spy on Americans without court orders.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made this assertion several times during the recent Senate Judicial Committee hearing. But as Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and others correctly pointed out, the Court’s written decision [.pdf] said nothing about spying or electronic surveillance.
6. The president has the authority to ignore international treaties, such as the Geneva Convention and the United Nations Convention on Torture, because they are not part of United States law.
From Article VI:
This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land[.] [Italics added.]
7. It is the job of the attorney general and other key administration attorneys to determine the scope of the president’s constitutional authorities.
To listen to Alberto Gonzales and other administration supporters, you’d think the president can legally do anything he wants on the say-so of his own lawyers. But the Constitution grants no authorities to the attorney general or to the Justice Department. It doesn’t even mention them. Article III vests the judicial power of the United States in “one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”
It may seem condescending to point out that Alberto Gonzales and other administration attorneys work for the executive branch and are not part of the judiciary. However, a college educated acquaintance of mine who professes to be knowledgeable in political matters recently expressed the opinion that Attorney General Gonzales was chief justice of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
8. “In the exercise of his plenary power to use military force, the president’s decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable.”
This often-quoted statement is from a memorandum written by John Yoo, an attorney who worked in the Justice Department during George W. Bush’s first term. It implies that the Constitution grants the president absolute powers to conduct war; in fact, the Constitution assigns most war powers to the legislature.
9. The Constitution expands the president’s authorities as commander in chief in wartime.
The Constitution makes the president commander in chief of the military — not of the country — in peacetime and wartime. It makes no provision for the president to assume any of the legislature’s powers in time of war, and it gives him no wartime authorities to ignore the rulings of the Supreme Court.
10. As vice president, Dick Cheney is second-in-command of the military and has authority to direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the conduct of the War on Terror.
Article I makes the vice president the president of the Senate, but he can vote on no legislation unless the Senate is equally divided. The vice president has no legal position in the military chain of command, and the Constitution doesn’t allow the president to give him one.
The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 redefined the chain of command for U.S. military operations as passing from the president to the Secretary of Defense to the unified combat commanders like General John Abizaid of Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Iraq theater of operations.
Goldwater-Nichols relegated the Joint Chiefs of Staff to an advisory role. Hence, Chairman Peter Pace and service chiefs like Army General Peter J. Schoomaker have no actual command authority over the operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Countless statements concerning war powers have appeared in legislation and court decisions since the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1787. Lawyers, pundits and politicians endlessly refer to these precedents when arguing for or against their point of view, but citing precedent is akin to taking a stroll through a cherry orchard. You can pick as much of whatever flavor suits your taste.
The Hamdi v. Rumsfeld [.pdf] decision in itself is a cornucopia of contradictory judgments. The majority opinion, written by Sandra Day O’Connor, decrees that:
The AUMF [the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks] authorizes the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against “nations, organizations, or persons” associated with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. …. There can be no doubt that individuals who fought against the United States in Afghanistan as part of the Taliban, an organization known to have supported the al Qaeda terrorist network responsible for those attacks, are individuals Congress sought to target in passing the AUMF.
There is no bar to this Nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant.
But the opinion also says, "a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.”
And as we saw during Attorney General Gonzales’ testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 6, 2006, both of these passages were quoted during the for-and-against debate over presidential wartime authority.
How is a concerned American citizen to sort the wheat from the chaff in the ongoing war-powers controversy? At the end of the day, it’s probably best to keep in mind that all U.S. law springs from the Constitution, and the best way to know what the Constitution says is to read it for yourself. Don’t rely on someone else to tell you what it says, and certainly don’t rely on anyone in the Bush administration or one of its supporters to tell you what it says.
Believe it or not, those folks have been known to make stuff up!
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ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: Sue in Ky, JeninRI, DEFuning, Stoy, Cho and Vivian Pettyjohn
Read Jeff Huber's related article on presidential war powers: The Ides of December: Smoke, Mirrors and War Powers
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