At the heart of the debate over the legality of the program to eavesdrop on the international communications of American citizens without a court order is a Congressional resolution passed a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings that authorized the president to use force against those responsible for the attacks.
President Bush cited the resolution, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, on Monday at his news conference. So did Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who in a session with reporters said the Congressional measure, in addition to the president’s inherent power as commander in chief, gave the government the power “to engage in this kind of signals intelligence.”
The resolution itself is a single sentence, adopted unanimously by the Senate and with only one dissenting vote in the House of Representatives. It provides the president with sweeping but vaguely defined authority “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.”
The resolution makes no mention of surveillance activity. Nor does it specify what is supposed to happen when American citizens, not themselves suspected of violating any law, come to the government’s attention through actions taken under the resolution’s terms.
“Nobody, nobody thought when we passed a resolution to invade Afghanistan and to fight the war on terror – including myself who voted for it – that this was an authorization to allow a wiretapping against the law of the United States,” Senator Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said in an interview on the “Today” show Monday.