The word “treason” is getting thrown around a lot in response to the letter to the leaders of Iran written on United States Senate letterhead and signed by 47 Republican senators. I’d like to back away from that word. It’s big and scary and probably falls under the same rule of internet debate that says that the first person to call someone or some thing a fascist automatically loses the debate. So let’s step back and discuss this like rational human beings.
Maybe we could start with what the letter actually says. At it’s most innocent, the letter is a basic primer on separation of powers. Of course, it’s a condescending oversimplification. For example, it leaves out the fact that the agreement is being negotiated between Iran, the US, and five other powers. While technically correct, the letter threatens that a future administration would go back on the word of the United States. Yes, the word of the United States, not President Obama. He is the president, and when it comes to foreign policy his word is policy. He speaks for the United States. The kind of agreement that the GOP is threatening to nullify with the stroke of a pen is the same kind as hundreds if not thousands of agreements presidential administrations negotiate with foreign powers all the time. From 1940-1989, presidents signed 13,000 executive agreements. These agreements are, in fact, only politically binding, but the consequences of walking away from these obligations are significant and not to be trifled with.
Now, let’s talk about the actual law that folks are talking about charging these senators under, The Logan Act. Here’s the text.
§ 953. Private correspondence with foreign governments.
- 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.
- This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply himself, or his agent, to any foreign government, or the agents thereof, for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.
- Who does this act apply to?
- Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be.
- That’s pretty self-explanatory. Of course that’s not the whole clause, is it? It’s any citizen who communicates with a foreign government with intent to influence its negotiations with the United States. That’s what it boils down to doesn’t it?
- So how does that compare with the letter?
- “It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government…”
- Well, that definitely qualifies as relating to negotiations between Iran and the US.
- Here’s the gist of the letter:
- “What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”
- Again, this is factual. However, this letter, sent in the context of negotiations tells Iran that their agreement with the United States is only good so long as the president wills it. That’s a problem when the stakes are war, and make no mistake, the stakes are war. Who, in their right mind, lowers their defenses as part of an agreement that could be nullified by the will of the next president, a role sought by several of the letters signatories?
- So I believe that this letter easily meets the conditions set forth in Logan. But the law is from 1799. Surely, it’s not still in effect. Surely there is not still a law on the books limiting speech. Surely, such a law would fail a first amendment test. It can’t be the intent of the founders.
- Can we really dismiss it, though? I mean, Republicans make a big deal out of the original intent of the Constitution. Well, this law was passed by the 5th Congress in 1799. It was signed by John Adams and the President of the Senate was none other than Thomas Jefferson, the guy who wrote The Declaration of Independence. I don’t know that we can just write this one off as something offensive to our nation’s founders.
- As for it’s relevance today? Well, it’s actually supported by a 1936 Supreme Court ruling that affirms the executive as the sole organ of US Foreign Policy. This law is still relevant.
- So what’s to be done about it? I’m not holding out much hope that President Obama’s justice department will prosecute these Senators. That would be a really big deal. But should he? How much should a President have to endure? At what point does “letting it go” become a threat to the office of the President?
- We don’t need to throw around words like treason to recognize that these Senators broke the law and need to be held to account.