On Monday, March 16, a White House petition demanding that the 47 senators who sent an open letter to the leaders of Iran be prosecuted for violating the Logan Act reached 300,000 signatures. The petition accuses the senators of treason for undermining the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.
File charges against the 47 U.S. Senators in violation of The Logan Act in attempting to undermine a nuclear agreement.
On March 9th, 2015, forty-seven United States Senators committed a treasonous offense when they decided to violate the Logan Act, a 1799 law which forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. Violation of the Logan Act is a felony, punishable under federal law with imprisonment of up to three years.
At a time when the United States government is attempting to reach a potential nuclear agreement with the Iranian government, 47 Senators saw fit to instead issue a condescending letter to the Iranian government stating that any agreement brokered by our President would not be upheld once the president leaves office.
This is a clear violation of federal law. In attempting to undermine our own nation, these 47 senators have committed treason.
The letter, written by first-term U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), informed Iran’s leaders that while the president has constitutional authority to negotiate treaties and diplomatic agreements with foreign nations, the Senate has to ratify these deals or they are “nothing more than an executive agreement.”
“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,” Cotton writes.
The ongoing debate among talking heads, politicos, and policymakers is whether or not Cotton and the 46 Republican senators who also signed the letter violated the Logan Act and committed treason in the process. Here is the language of the law, which dates back to 1799:
“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.” – Logan Act
The argument that the senators violated the law comes from the interpretation that “without authority of the United States” refers to the Executive Branch’s authority to conduct negotiations under Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution. However, American University Law Professor Steve Vladeck argues that it is unlikely that a court would find the senators guilty of violating the law because the language is not that specific.
“[T]he citizen must act “without authority of the United States.” Although most assume that means without authority of the Executive Branch, the Logan Act itself does not specify what this term means,” Vladeck writes, “and the State Department told Congress in 1975 that ‘Nothing in section 953 . . . 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, those who believe the senators committed treason say it is about their intentions.
The letter was sent mere days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before a joint session of Congress. During his speech, Netanyahu urged members of Congress to reject any nuclear agreement from the president. Instead, he wants Congress to pass tougher sanctions on Iran.
In the letter, Cotton implied that whatever agreement is made between the Obama administration and Iranian officials will (i) be rejected in the Senate and (ii) will be fought and challenged long after Obama leaves office. The executive agreement could be reversed by a Republican president or a Congress with stronger opposition to the deal.
Cotton also made a point to mention that presidents have term limits, while senators do not. Because elections in the U.S. strongly favor incumbents, these senators could be in the upper chamber for decades. The purpose seemed to be to undermine the authority of the Executive Branch and current efforts by the president and European allies to find a diplomatic solution to nuclear talks.
The debate over whether or not the senators violated the Logan Act will likely continue until people are just tired of hearing about it. Ultimately, it comes down to how a person interprets a law that is 216 years old. However, history suggests that no matter where people stand or how many people sign a White House petition, these senators will likely never be charged for any wrongdoing.
Image: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)