In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: Did Republicans violate the Logan Act? This is The Two Minute Drill for March 13, 2015.
Pundits and legal scholars are raising questions over whether freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and 46 other Senate Republicans violated the Logan Act when they penned an open letter to the leaders of Iran admonishing them that any agreement entered into today with the Obama administration could be reversed by Obama’s successor. Clearly, the act by these Senators was politically rude. But was it actually illegal?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
The Logan Act, which was passed in 1799, was intended to prohibit U.S. citizens without authority from interfering in relations between the U.S. and foreign governments. As amended, it 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.
Most alleged Logan Act violations violate the spirit and structural foundations of the Logan Act. In 2007, for example, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-MD) was accused of violating the Logan Act when she travelled to Syria to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, clashing with the Bush administration’s policy. But the Republicans’ letter seems to squarely satisfy the Logan Act’s elements.
First, we have a correspondence with a foreign government. This point is not in dispute; whether that correspondence is direct or indirect, in the form of an “open letter,” matters not.
Second, it was made without the authority of the United States. This point is arguable because, while most assume that “without authority” means “without authority of the Executive Branch,” the Logan Act itself does not specify what this term means. And further, the State Department told Congress in 1975 that “Nothing in [the Logan Act] . . . would appear to restrict members of the Congress from engaging in discussions with foreign officials in pursuance of their legislative duties under the Constitution.” However, in terms of foreign policy, the Senate’s “legislative duties under the Constitution” is advice and consent. The Senate is not empowered to negotiate with a foreign government on behalf of the country. If anything, Cotton’s status as a senator makes the offense a greater one, because it’s more likely to be taken seriously.
Third, the letter clearly has the intent “to influence the measures or conduct of” the government of Iran in relation to a controversy with the United States. This point, as well, is not in dispute. In fact, Cotton has made no secret that he wants to undermine the Iran talks entirely. “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence,” Cotton said in January, speaking at a conference hosted by Heritage Action for America.
None of this is to suggest that there will, or even should be, a Logan Act claim against Cotton and his collaborators. Indeed, given the serious constitutional concerns about the Logan Act (e.g. the First Amendment), non-prosecution is probably prudent. But that doesn’t make the Cotton letter any less problematic. Nor does it change the fact that the letter seems to have crossed a line.
Word Count: 499
The Five Best Things We’ve Read This Week
Here are the five most interesting articles we read this week:
- The Bridge. President Obama made two key points during his speech in Selma last weekend. First, it’s a mistake to suggest that racism is gone in America: “We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true.” Second, we’ve made a lot of progress: “If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
- Rising Tide. “The state of Florida is the region most susceptible to the effects of global warming in this country . . . But you would not know that by talking to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency on the front lines of studying and planning for these changes. DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ in any official communications, emails, or reports . . . .” From Tristram Korten in the Miami Herald: In Florida, Officials Ban Term “Climate Change.”
- Magic. “When they sat down, a radio receiver in the table picked up the signals from their MagicBands and triangulated their location using another receiver in the ceiling. The server – as in waitperson, not computer array – knew what they ordered before they even approached the restaurant and knew where they were sitting. And it all worked seamlessly, like magic.” From Cliff Kuang in Wired: Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband.
- Artificial Intelligence. Can you tell whether a computer algorithm or a person wrote these news items? Take the quiz over at The New York Times.
- The Forgotten. “They’ve lost touch with their parents. They’ve lost touch with people in their villages, they’re not able to articulate, to help trace their relationships, they can’t even tell you what their names are.” From BBC: Boko Haram Child Captives “Forgot Names.”
And in case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week took a look at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on March 4. Read the Column for March 10, 2015 – Benjamin Netanyahu Has No Credibility on the Iranian Threat.