Editorial Roundup for Thursday – December 29, 2005

• Domestic surveillance: The secrets of George III


Domestic surveillance: The secrets of George III

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 26, 2005:

Among the facts “submitted to a candid world” by the Declaration of Independence was this complaint against King George III: “He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.”

What was a problem 229 years ago is a problem today. President George W. Bush (by coincidence, the third U.S. president named George) is refusing his assent to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The act gives the judiciary, in the persons of 12 judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the right to decide when wiretaps will be used in foreign intelligence investigations on U.S. soil.

The president “needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy,” Vice President Dick Cheney said last week. Having first come to power as President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of staff in the post-Watergate era, Mr. Cheney pines openly for the glory days of the Nixon administration.

Since 9/11, President Bush, with the concurrence of Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, has stretched to the breaking point the extraordinary wartime powers granted him under the Patriot Act. Suspects, including U.S. citizens, have been declared “enemy combatants” and held without trial. The Pentagon, having already established its own intelligence office to provide tailor-made findings overseas, has now established its own database of U.S. protesters at home. The Central Intelligence Agency has established secret overseas jails, and prisoners have been subjected to physical abuse. The president and Mr. Cheney fought a protracted battle with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over Mr. McCain’s effort to outlaw cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners. That Mr. McCain ultimately prevailed, and that Congress granted the president only a five-week extension of the Patriot Act before adjourning for the holidays last week, suggest that even the docile 109th Congress is beginning to react to executive power-grasping. That U.S. District Judge James Robertson last week resigned from the FISA Court suggests the judicial branch may be split on the issue as well.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., the nation’s senior constitutional scholar, put it well. Arguing that Congress must summon the president and his men and women to account for themselves, Mr. Byrd said Mr. Bush had claimed “powers reserved only for kings and potentates.” Mr. Byrd continued: “The president has cast off federal law, enacted by Congress, often bearing his own signature, as mere formality. He has rebuffed the rule of law, and he has trivialized and trampled upon the prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizures guaranteed to Americans by the United States Constitution.

“We are supposed to accept these dirty little secrets. We are told that it is irresponsible to draw attention to President Bush’s gross abuse of power and Constitutional violations. But what is truly irresponsible is to neglect to uphold the rule of law.”

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