Byline: Charles Hurt, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Previous administrations, as well as the court that oversees national security cases, agreed with President Bush's position that a president legally may authorize searches without warrants in pursuit of foreign intelligence.
"The Department of Justice believes - and the case law supports - that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes and that the president may, as he has done, delegate this authority to the attorney general," Clinton Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick said in 1994 testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
That same authority, she added, pertains to electronic surveillance such as wiretaps.
More recently, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - the secretive judicial system that handles classified intelligence cases - wrote in a declassified opinion that the court has long held "that the President did have inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information."
Such warrantless searches have been at the center of a political fight in Washington after the New York Times reported Friday that the Bush administration had a program to intercept communications between al Qaeda suspects and persons in this country, a story whose publication coincided with the congressional debate over reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act.
In a 2002 opinion about the constitutionality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the USA Patriot Act, the court wrote: "We take for granted that the President does have that authority and, assuming that is so, FISA could not encroach on the President's constitutional power."
Indeed, previous administrations have used that same authority.
One of the most famous examples of warrantless searches in recent years was the investigation of CIA official Aldrich H. Ames, who ultimately pleaded guilty to spying for the former Soviet Union. That case was largely built upon secret searches of Ames' home and office in 1993, conducted without federal warrants.
In 1994, President Clinton expanded the use of warrantless searches to entirely domestic situations with no foreign intelligence value whatsoever. In a radio address promoting a crime-fighting bill, Mr. Clinton discussed a new policy to conduct warrantless searches in highly violent public housing projects.
Previous administrations also asserted the authority of the president to conduct searches in the interest of national security. …