The discussion of wiretapping by the President, without court approval, raises a number of important and interesting legal issues. According to CNN, Attorney General Gonzales recently said, "There were many people, many lawyers within the administration who advised the president that he had an inherent authority as commander in chief under the Constitution to engage in" this kind of "signal intelligence of our enemy." The Attorney General added, "We also believe that the authorization to use force, which was passed by the Congress in the days following the attacks of September 11, constituted additional authorization for the president to engage in this kind of signal intelligence."
I want to suggest here that this last statement is more plausible than it might seem at first glance. If the statement is indeed correct, some legal questions certainly remain, but at least we will have made progress.
The authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) says, "the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
This authorization clearly supported the war in Afghanistan. It also clearly justifies the use of force against Al Qaeda. In the Hamdi case, the Supreme Court added that the AUMF authorizes the detention of enemy combatants -- notwithstanding 18 USC 4001(a), which requires an Act of Congress to support executive detention. In the Court's view, the AUMF stands as the relevant Act of Congress, authorizing detention. It is therefore reasonable to say that the AUMF, by authorizing the use of "all necessary and appropriate force," also authorizes surveillance of those associated with Al Qaeda or any other organizations that "planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks" of September 11.
The reason is that surveillance, including wiretapping, is reasonably believed to be an incident of the use of force. It standardly occurs during war. If the President's wiretapping has been limited to those reasonably believed to be associated with Al Qaeda and its affiliates -- as indeed he has said -- then the Attorney General's argument is entirely plausible. (The AUMF would not permit wiretapping of those without any connection to nations, organizations, and persons associated with the September 11 attacks.)
This brief statement does not answer several other questions, including (a) whether, as the Attorney General also contends, the President has inherent constitutional authority to engage in this kind of wiretapping (authority he does not need if the AUMF is sufficient), (b) whether specific statutes negate the authority that the AUMF appears to give (as Senator Feingold has argued -- an argument that in some tension with Hamdi), and (c) whether there might be a possible Fourth Amendment barrier to these wiretaps (a barrier that might remain even if the AUMF provides authorization, see Hamdi on due process limits on the power to detain).