Warrantless "National Security" Electronic Surveillance

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


Annotations

Warrantless “National Security” Electronic Surveillance.—In Katz v. United States,423 Justice White sought to preserve for a future case the possibility that in “national security cases” electronic surveillance upon the authorization of the President or the Attorney General could be permissible without prior judicial approval. The Executive Branch then asserted the power to wiretap and to “bug” in two types of national security situations, against domestic subversion and against foreign intelligence operations, first basing its authority on a theory of “inherent” presidential power and then in the Supreme Court withdrawing to the argument that such surveillance was a “reasonable” search and seizure and therefore valid under the Fourth Amendment. Unanimously, the Court held that at least in cases of domestic subversive investigations, compliance with the warrant provisions of the Fourth Amendment was required.424 Whether or not a search was reasonable, wrote Justice Powell for the Court, was a question which derived much of its answer from the warrant clause; except in a few narrowly circumscribed classes of situations, only those searches conducted pursuant to warrants were reasonable. The Government’s duty to preserve the national security did not override the guarantee that before government could invade the privacy of its citizens it must present to a neutral magistrate evidence sufficient to support issuance of a warrant authorizing that invasion of privacy.425 This protection was even more needed in “national security cases” than in cases of “ordinary” crime, the Justice continued, because the tendency of government so often is to regard opponents of its policies as a threat and hence to tread in areas protected by the First Amendment as well as by the Fourth.426 Rejected also was the argument that courts could not appreciate the intricacies of investigations in the area of national security or preserve the secrecy which is required.427

The question of the scope of the President’s constitutional powers, if any, remains judicially unsettled.428 Congress has acted, however, providing for a special court to hear requests for warrants for electronic surveillance in foreign intelligence situations, and permitting the President to authorize warrantless surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information provided that the communications to be monitored are exclusively between or among foreign powers and there is no substantial likelihood any “United States person” will be overheard.429


423 389 U.S. 347, 363–64 (1967) (concurring opinion). Justices Douglas and Brennan rejected the suggestion. Id. at 359–60 (concurring opinion). When it enacted its 1968 electronic surveillance statute, Congress alluded to the problem in ambiguous fashion, 18 U.S.C. § 2511(3), which the Court subsequently interpreted as having expressed no congressional position at all. United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297, 302–08 (1972).

424 United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972). Chief Justice Burger concurred in the result and Justice White concurred on the ground that the 1968 law required a warrant in this case, and therefore did not reach the constitutional issue. Id. at 340. Justice Rehnquist did not participate. Justice Powell carefully noted that the case required “no judgment on the scope of the President’s surveillance power with respect to the activities of foreign powers, within or without this country.” Id. at 308.

425 The case contains a clear suggestion that the Court would approve a congressional provision for a different standard of probable cause in national security cases. “We recognize that domestic security surveillance may involve different policy and practical considerations from the surveillance of ‘ordinary crime.’ The gathering of security intelligence is often long range and involves the interrelation of various sources and types of information. The exact targets of such surveillance may be more difficult to identify than in surveillance operations against many types of crimes specified in Title III. Often, too, the emphasis of domestic intelligence gathering is on the prevention of unlawful activity or the enhancement of the Government’s preparedness for some future crisis or emergency. . . . Different standards may be compatible with the Fourth Amendment if they are reasonable both in relation to the legitimate need of Government for intelligence information and the protected rights of our citizens. For the warrant application may vary according to the governmental interest to be enforced and the nature of citizen right deserving protection. . . . It may be that Congress, for example, would judge that the application and affidavit showing probable cause need not follow the exact requirements of § 2518 but should allege other circumstances more appropriate to domestic security cases. . . .” 407 U.S. at 322–23.

426 407 U.S. at 313–24.

427 407 U.S. at 320.

428 See United States v. Butenko, 494 F.2d 593 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 419 U.S. 881 (1974); Zweibon v. Mitchell, 516 F.2d 594 (D.C. Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 944 (1976), appeal after remand, 565 F.2d 742 (D.C. Cir. 1977), on remand, 444 F. Supp. 1296 (D.D.C. 1978), aff’d in part, rev’d in part, 606 F.2d 1172 (D.C. Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 453 U.S. 912 (1981); Smith v. Nixon, 606 F.2d 1183 (D.C. Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 453 U.S. 912 (1981); United States v. Truong Ding Hung, 629 F.2d 908 (4th Cir. 1980), after remand, 667 F.2d 1105 (4th Cir. 1981); Halkin v. Helms, 690 F.2d 977 (D.C. Cir. 1982).

429 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, Pub. L. 95–511, 92 Stat. 1797, 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801–1811. See United States v. Belfield, 692 F.2d 141 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (upholding constitutionality of disclosure restrictions in Act).