Monday, March 9, 2015

47 Senators have committed a felony but they probably won't be prosecuted

The Republican congressional contempt for President Obama has gone beyond the point of insanity to something approaching treason. When 47 U.S. senators signed and sent a letter to "Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," they may have committed a felony by violating the Logan Act, which forbids citizens from corresponding with foreign governments with the intent to influence their actions towards the United States.

The letter, first reported by Josh Rogin of Bloomberg signed personally by 47 senators, including the leadership and several potential Presidential candidates, basically urges Iran's leaders not to do an agreement with President Obama because any deal they do may not last past his presidency. The entire letter can be seen here. The only Republican senators who did not sign the letter were Senators Lamar Alexander (TN), Susan Collins (ME), Bob Corker (TN), Dan Coats (IN), Jeff Flake (AZ), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Rob Portman (OH).

This is an unprecedented act of disloyalty to the United States by members of Congress. They are endangering a delicate negotiation with Iran that is about to reach its climax. If they are successful in torpedoing the negotiations, the result may be another major war.

 Their actions clearly violate the express terms of the Logan Act, which was first enacted in 1799, but has been reaffirmed a number of times since then. The Act (1 Stat. 613, January 30, 1799, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 953 (2004), reads:

"Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."

The Logan Act was enacted when John Adams was President during the time of the "Quasi War" with France, an undeclared conflict that lasted several years in the 1790s because the United States stopped repaying its debts to France incurred during the Revolution. The United States took the position that the debts were owed to the French royal family, not to the nation in general. The French, who were at war with Great Britain, were properly outraged by the lack of loyalty of the Americans whose victory over the British in the Revolution was due in no small measure to French military and financial support. The French attacked and seized American merchant vessels. The result was an undeclared war, fought mostly at sea, and it featured the first combat by the new U.S., Navy's soon to be legendary, USS Constitution, ("Old Ironsides").

The situation today is remarkably similar to what was going on at the time the Logan Act was enacted. There is an intense debate going on today over what American policy should be towards Iran, with powerful interests, including foreign countries, lobbying intensively inside the U.S. as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu did before Congress last week. At the same time, diplomats from a group of nations, including the United States, have been negotiating with Iran in an effort to get them to end their nuclear program. A deadline for an agreement is coming at the end of this month.

In the 1790s British and French interests were very active inside the U.S., including involving themselves in American politics and whipping up crowds of support. A Pennsylvania state legislator went to France and urged the French to ease up on their aggression towards the U.S. and to release the many American prisoners they held. The French did both, but the interference by a private citizen in the country's foreign policy caused this Act, named after that legislator, to be enacted. It has been the law ever since that only the President conducts foreign policy.

While questions have been raised whether the Logan Act might be unconstitutional because of the vagueness of its wording, it never has been ruled on directly. However, in a 1936 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp that involved a different issue, Justice Sutherland wrote that the "President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; but he alone negotiates. Into the field of negotiation the Senate cannot intrude, and Congress itself is powerless to invade it."

As recently as 2006, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct of the United States House of Representatives wrote to members that while it questioned the Logan Act's constitutionality, the law still was in force and that it prohibited any citizen from trying to influence foreign governments in regard to "any disputes or controversies with the United  States, or to defeat the measures of the United States."

There have been many alleged violations of the Act over the years, but only one prosecution, and that one in 1803. In recent years, allegations of violating the Act were made against various prominent politicians who visited foreign countries and talked with their leaders, from Senators. George McGovern and John Sparkman to Rep. Nancy Pelosi. The State Department has taken the position that it is not a violation of the Act for public officials to have conversations with foreign leaders about issues relevant to their legislative duties.

Never has there been a clearer violation of the Act than this letter, which goes way beyond the State Department's limitation of the Act. However, it is impossible to imagine that the Senators will be prosecuted, even though they should be. What they have done is close to treason. Never before has there been an official communication from members of Congress to a foreign nation involving sensitive diplomatic negotiations being carried on by the President and the State Department.

But then there has never been a majority party in Congress as irresponsible and as disloyal to the United States as the current Republican Party. Their contempt for the President is so enormous that it has blinded them to the damage they potentially could do by writing this letter.

They well could be responsible for causing a war with Iran that could have horrible consequences far greater than any recent war. Consider all that is going on: The ISIS conquest of Syria and Iraq still raging; The Russian invasion of the Ukraine still underway, and the Europeans beginning to send in military aid; And the Taliban about to try to re-conquer Afghanistan.

A peaceful settlement with Iran could help bring ends to these other conflicts. A war with Iran will ignite a conflagration beyond anything seen since World War II. No rational, or person with the best interests of the United States at heart would try to disrupt a peaceful settlement with Iran. But that is exactly what these 47 senators have attempted to do. 

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