"Our job is not to stand up and cheer when the President breaks the law".
Mr. President, last week the President of the United States gave his State of the Union address, where he spoke of America's leadership in the world, and called on all of us to "lead this world toward freedom." Again and again, he invoked the principle of freedom, and how it can transform nations, and empower people around the world.
But, almost in the same breath, the President openly acknowledged that he has ordered the government to spy on Americans, on American soil, without the warrants required by law.
The President issued a call to spread freedom throughout the world, and then he admitted that he has deprived Americans of one of their most basic freedoms under the Fourth Amendment--to be free from unjustified government intrusion.
The President was blunt. He said that he had authorized the National Security Agency's domestic spying program, and he made a number of misleading arguments to defend himself. His words got rousing applause from Republicans, and even some Democrats.
The President was blunt, so I will be blunt: This program is breaking the law, and this President is breaking the law. Not only that, he is misleading the American people in his efforts to justify this program.
How is that worthy of applause? Since when do we celebrate our commander in chief for violating our most basic freedoms, and misleading the American people in the process? When did we start to stand up and cheer for breaking the law? In that moment at the State of the Union, I felt ashamed.
Congress has lost its way if we don't hold this President accountable for his actions.
The President suggests that anyone who criticizes his illegal wiretapping program doesn't understand the threat we face. But we do. Every single one of us is committed to stopping the terrorists who threaten us and our families.
Defeating the terrorists should be our top national priority, and we all agree that we need to wiretap them to do it. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to wiretap terrorists. But we have yet to see any reason why we have to trample the laws of the United States to do it. The President's decision that he can break the law says far more about his attitude toward the rule of law than it does about the laws themselves.
This goes way beyond party, and way beyond politics. What the President has done here is to break faith with the American people. In the State of the Union, he also said that "we must always be clear in our principles" to get support from friends and allies that we need to fight terrorism. So let's be clear about a basic American principle: When someone breaks the law, when someone misleads the public in an attempt to justify his actions, he needs to be held accountable. The President of the United States has broken the law. The President of the United States is trying to mislead the American people. And he needs to be held accountable....
To find out that the President of the United States has violated the basic rights of the American people is chilling. And then to see him publicly embrace his actions--and to see so many Members of Congress cheer him on--is appalling....
The President is not a king. And the Congress is not a king's court. Our job is not to stand up and cheer when the President breaks the law.
That is one of the reasons that the framers put us here--to ensure balance between the branches of government, not to act as a professional cheering section.
We need answers. Because no one, not the President, not the Attorney General, and not any of their defenders in this body has been able to explain why it is necessary to break the law to defend against terrorism. And I think that's because they can't explain it.
Instead, this Administration reacts to anyone who questions this illegal program by saying that those of us who demand the truth and stand up for our rights and freedoms have a pre-9/11 view of the world.
In fact, the President has a pre-1776 view of the world.
Our Founders lived in dangerous times, and they risked everything for freedom. Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death." The President's pre-1776 mentality is hurting America. It is fracturing the foundation on which our country has stood for 230 years. The President can't just bypass two branches of government, and obey only those laws he wants to obey. Deciding unilaterally which of our freedoms still apply in the fight against terrorism is unacceptable and needs to be stopped immediately....
The President knows that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act makes it a crime to wiretap Americans in the United States without a warrant or a court order. Why else would he have assured the public, over and over again, that he was getting warrants before engaging in domestic surveillance?
Here's what the President said on April 20, 2004: "Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires--a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."
And again, on July 14, 2004: "The government can't move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order."
The President was understandably eager in these speeches to make it clear that under his Administration, law enforcement was using the FISA court to obtain warrants before wiretapping. That is understandable, since wiretapping Americans on American soil without a warrant is against the law.
And listen to what the President said on June 9, 2005: "Law enforcement officers need a federal judge's permission to wiretap a foreign terrorist's phone, a federal judge's permission to track his calls, or a federal judge's permission to search his property. Officers must meet strict standards to use any of these tools. And these standards are fully consistent with the Constitution of the U.S."
Now that the public knows about the domestic spying program, he has had to change course. He has looked around for arguments to cloak his actions. And all of them are completely threadbare.
The President has argued that Congress gave him authority to wiretap Americans on U.S. soil without a warrant when it passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force after September 11, 2001. Mr. President, that is ridiculous. Members of Congress did not think this resolution gave the President blanket authority to order these warrantless wiretaps. We all know that. Anyone in this body who would tell you otherwise either wasn't here at the time or isn't telling the truth. We authorized the President to use military force in Afghanistan, a necessary and justified response to September 11. We did not authorize him to wiretap American citizens on American soil without going through the process that was set up nearly three decades ago precisely to facilitate the domestic surveillance of terrorists--with the approval of a judge. That is why both Republicans and Democrats have questioned this theory.
This particular claim is further undermined by Congressional approval of the Patriot Act just a few weeks after we passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The Patriot Act made it easier for law enforcement to conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists and spies, while maintaining FISA's baseline requirement of judicial approval for wiretaps of Americans in the U.S. It is ridiculous to think that Congress would have negotiated and enacted all the changes to FISA in the Patriot Act if it thought it had just authorized the President to ignore FISA in the AUMF.
In addition, in the intelligence authorization bill passed in December 2001, we extended the emergency authority in FISA, at the Administration's request, from twenty-four to seventy-two hours. Why do that if the President has the power to ignore FISA? That makes no sense at all.
The President has also said that his inherent executive power gives him the power to approve this program. But here the President is acting in direct violation of a criminal statute. That means his power is, as Justice Jackson said in the steel seizure cases half a century ago, "at its lowest ebb." A recent letter from a group of law professors and former executive branch officials points out that "every time the Supreme Court has confronted a statute limiting the commander in chief's authority, it has upheld the statute." The Senate reports issued when FISA was enacted confirm the understanding that FISA overrode any preexisting inherent authority of the President. As the 1978 Senate Judiciary Committee report stated, FISA "recognizes no inherent power of the President in this area." And "Congress has declared that this statute, not any claimed Presidential power, controls." Contrary to what the President told the country in the State of the Union, no court has ever approved warrantless surveillance in violation of FISA.
The President's claims of inherent executive authority, and his assertions that the courts have approved this type of activity, are baseless....
Freedom is an enduring principle. It is not something to celebrate in one breath, and ignore the next. Freedom is at the heart of who we are as a nation, and as a people. We cannot be a beacon of freedom for the world unless we protect our own freedoms here at home.
The President was right about one thing. In his address, he said, "We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it."
Yes, Mr. President. We do love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it. We will fight to defeat the terrorists who threaten the safety and security of our families and loved ones. And we will fight to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans against intrusive government power.
As the President said, we must always be clear in our principles. So let us be clear: We cherish the great and noble principle of freedom, we will fight to keep it, and we will hold this President--and anyone who violates those freedoms--accountable for their actions. In a nation built on freedom, the President is not a king, and no one is above the law.
I yield the floor.
Illustration by Christophe Vorlet