Editororial Roudup for Thursday — December 22, 2005

• Domestic surveillance: The “trust me” president


Domestic surveillance: The “trust me” president

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 20, 2005:

The “humbler” new version of President George W. Bush unveiled last week made yet another appearance Monday morning, this time asserting vast powers to do what he wanted, when he wanted, to protect the nation from its enemies.

If this is humility, what would arrogance look like?

“As president and commander-in-chief, I have the constitutional responsibility and the constitutional authority to protect our country,” Mr. Bush said in opening remarks at a White House news conference Monday morning. “Article II of the Constitution gives me that responsibility and the authority necessary to fulfill it. And after September the 11th, the United States Congress also granted me additional authority to use military force against al Qaida.”

For Mr. Bush and his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, when Congress authorized the use of force against al-Qaida in Afghanistan after 9/11, it also gave the president implicit authority to use his executive power as commander-in-chief to fight the enemy as he saw fit. This is a breathtaking assumption, a nearly unprecedented challenge to the separation of powers doctrine. It is sure to be challenged by Congress and may have to be settled by the U. S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Bush first asserted this claim Saturday in a nation-wide radio address, the day after The New York Times revealed that since 2002, the National Security Agency had been monitoring phone conversations and e-mail of hundreds of U.S. residents and citizens suspected of being in contact with al Qaida.

The surveillance was conducted outside the strictures of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires intelligence agencies to obtain warrants from a secret Foreign Intelligence Court before snooping on calls placed from the United States. The president said Monday that terrorists quickly adapt to changes in tactics, and thus intelligence agencies must be able to act swiftly – without time-consuming waits for legal warrants.

Yes, terrorists adapt quickly, but wiretaps are usually in place for weeks or months. Courts can issue wiretap warrants within hours. Mr. Bush’s decision to remove the legal niceties of obtaining warrants doesn’t make it any more likely that terrorists will be caught. It does, however, jeopardize constitutional protections built in the 1978 Surveillance Act.

Without court review, intelligence agencies can wiretap anyone they want, whenever they want, for whatever reasons they want. Mr. Bush said that key leaders of Congress and its intelligence committees were regularly briefed on the surveillance, and that the program was regularly reviewed. But given the danger for abuse, those safeguards aren’t enough.

Ironically, even as the new “humble” president Is finally admitting mistakes and miscalculations in the war on Iraq, he’s saying “trust me” on protecting fundamental constitutional rights. Unfortunately, where the constitution is concerned, his track record doesn’t merit that kind of trust.

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