Testing the Limits of Presidential Powers

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Senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says that the recent controversy over secret National Security Agency eavesdropping is putting the idea of inherent presidential powers to the test.


President Bush is taking on an issue of presidential powers on which presidents have stumbled before.

NORRIS: NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: At his news conference today, the president said that warrantless eavesdropping targeted at foreign citizens by the National Security Agency will continue as long as the enemy threat continues. Mr. Bush chose not to avail himself of the tool that Congress has provided for that purpose, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed in 1978 that permits him to apply, in secret, to a special court for a warrant.

In his defiance, there may be peril, as President Nixon discovered when the House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against him, one of them for abuse of power: the FBI, the CIA and the IRS. Nixon took the position that he was using inherent presidential powers granted by the Constitution.

The Constitution says that the president shall exercise the executive power and shall be commander in chief of the armed forces, but it doesn't spell out what those powers are. Some presidents have come up with what they call the inherent power of the presidency, which tends to be what they make it.

Historians have said that President Lincoln freed the slaves, blockaded Southern ports and instituted a draft all without constitutional authority. President Reagan invoked inherent powers to justify the illegal sale of missiles to Iran and the illegal financing of the civil war in Nicaragua. Short of impeachment, the Congress has no way of stopping a willful president except to deny him funds. That, of course, is unlikely, especially with a Republican-controlled Congress.

The issue is not likely to go away. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter promises open hearings on eavesdropping early in the new year. The president denounced the media for breaking the story as harmful to national security. I can imagine that the administration, invoking the inherent powers of national security, might refuse to testify. This is Daniel Schorr.

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