A typical FISA application involves a substantial process in its own right: The work of several lawyers; the preparation of an application and related legal papers; the approval of a designated Cabinet-level officer; a certification from a designated Senate-confirmed officer; and, finally, of course, the approval of an Article III judge who sits on the FISA Court. See 50 U.S.C. § 1804. Needless to say, even under the very best of circumstances, this process consumes valuable resources and results in significant delay. We all agree that there should be appropriate checks and balances on the Branches of our Government. The FISA process makes perfect sense in almost all cases of foreign intelligence monitoring in the United States. Although technology has changed dramatically since FISA was enacted, FISA remains a vital tool in the War on Terror, and one that we are using to its fullest and will continue to use against al Qaeda and other foreign threats. But as the President has explained, the terrorist surveillance program operated by the NSA requires the maximum in speed and agility, since even a very short delay may make the difference between success and failure in preventing the next attack. And we cannot afford to fail. Finally, the NSA’s terrorist surveillance program fully complies with the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment has never been understood to require warrants in all circumstances. The Supreme Court has upheld warrentless searches at the border and has allowed warrantless sobriety checkpoints. See, e.g., Michigan v. Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990); see also Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 44 (2000) (stating that “the Fourth Amendment would almost certainly permit an appropriately tailored roadblock set up to thwart an imminent terrorist attack”). Those searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment because they involve “special needs” beyond routine law enforcement. Vernonia Sch. Dist. v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 653 (1995). To fall within the “special needs” exception to the warrant requirement, the purpose of the search must be distinguishable from ordinary general crime control. See, e.g., Ferguson v. Charleston, 532 U.S. 67 (2001); City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 41 (2000).
The terrorist surveillance program fits within this “special needs” category. This conclusion is by no means novel. During the Clinton Administration, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick testified before Congress in 1994 that the President has inherent authority under the Constitution to conduct foreign intelligence searches of the private homes of U.S. citizens in the United States without a warrant, and that such warrantless searches are permissible under the Fourth Amendment. See Amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: Hearings Before the House Permanent Select Comm. on Intelligence, 103d Cong. 2d Sess. 61, 64 (1994) (statement of Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick). See also In re Sealed Case, 310 F.3d at 745-46.
The critical advantage offered by the terrorist surveillance program compared to FISA is who makes the probable cause determination and how many layers of review must occur before surveillance begins. Some have pointed to the provision in FISA that allows for so-called “emergency authorizations” of surveillance for 72 hours without a court order. There is a serious misconception about these emergency authorizations. We do not and cannot approve emergency surveillance under FISA without knowing that we meet FISA’s normal requirements. In order to authorize emergency surveillance under FISA, the Attorney General must personally “determine that . . . the factual basis for issuance of an order under [FISA] to approve such surveillance exists.” 50 U.S.C. § 1805(f). FISA requires the Attorney General to determine in advance that this condition is satisfied. That review process can, of necessity, take precious time. And that same process takes the decision away from the officers best situated to make it during an armed conflict. Thus, to initiate surveillance under a FISA emergency authorization, it is not enough to rely on the best judgment of our intelligence officers. Those intelligence officers would have to get the sign-off of lawyers at the NSA, and then lawyers in the Department of Justice would have to be satisfied that the statutory requirements for emergency authorization are met, and finally as Attorney General, I would have to be satisfied that the proposed surveillance meets the requirements of FISA. Finally, the emergency application must be filed “as soon as practicable,” but within 72 hours.