Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Some Musings on the Past Three Days

I've been somewhat holding back from posting on my blog site for the past three days. Of course, this week is the ultimate in the "silly season," with the last few shopping days until Christmas, and the total insanity rush of buying presents, putting up trees and decorations, munching on baked goods and such. I've also been watching the news, regarding President Bush's remarks about the illegal wiretapping. The reports on the wiretapping, and the Bush White House responses have been coming out so quickly, that it becomes so easy to get involved in the details while losing sight of the big picture here. And this is becoming a huge picture of a constitutional crisis.

This whole crisis starts with a story by the New York Times, reporting that President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to to wiretap Americans phones and emails on domestic soil, without obtaining any search warrants. The NY Times sat on this story--without publishing it--for an entire year, possibly being placed under pressure by the Bush White House for stifling this story. We'll get to the questions later about the Times' delay of publication later on. What I find disturbing is that this Times story came out less than a week after MSNBC reported a story regarding the Pentagon intelligence gathering and cataloging an electronic database of anti-war groups on American soil. In other words, the Pentagon was spying on Quaker anti-war protestors, deeming them a "terrorist threat." As these revelations have been made public, the Bush White House has been scrambling to defend its position on secret spying. Here's one story from Yahoo News, titled Bush Vigorously Defends Domestic Spying:

WASHINGTON - Accused of acting above the law, President Bush forcefully defended a domestic spying program on Monday as an effective tool in disrupting terrorists and insisted it was not an abuse of Americans' civil liberties.

Bush said it was "a shameful act" for someone to have leaked details to the media. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said it was "probably the most classified program that exists in the United States government" -- involving electronic intercepts of telephone calls and e-mails in the U.S. of people with known ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

President Bush addresses a press conference in the East Room of the White House, December 19, 2005. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

At a news conference, Bush bristled at the suggestion he was assuming unlimited powers.

"To say `unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject," he said angrily in a finger-pointing answer. "I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country."

Here's another example of the White House defense regarding the spying on American citizens. This is from the New York Times, titled Administration Cites War Vote in Spying Case:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 - President Bush and two of his most senior aides argued Monday that the highly classified program to spy on suspected members of terrorist groups in the United States grew out of the president's constitutional authority and a 2001 Congressional resolution that authorized him to use all necessary force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Offering their most forceful and detailed defense of the program in a series of briefings, television interviews and a hastily called presidential news conference, administration officials argued that the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was not written for an age of modern terrorism. In these times, Mr. Bush said, a "two-minute phone conversation between somebody linked to Al Qaeda here and an operative overseas could lead directly to the loss of thousands of lives."

Mr. Bush strongly hinted that the government was beginning a leak investigation into how the existence of the program was disclosed. It was first revealed in an article published on The New York Times Web site on Thursday night, though some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists had been omitted.

"We're at war, and we must protect America's secrets," Mr. Bush said. "And so the Justice Department, I presume, will proceed forward with a full investigation."

He also lashed out again, as he did Saturday, at Democrats and Republicans in the Senate who have blocked the reauthorization of the broad antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, saying they voted for it after the Sept. 11 attacks "but now think it's no longer necessary."

President Bush gestures during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Monday, Dec. 19, 2005 in Washington. Bush, brushing aside bipartisan criticism in Congress, said Monday he approved spying on suspected terrorists without court orders because it was 'a necessary part of my job to protect' Americans from attack. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What gets me is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the government to secretly wiretap international phone calls, then ask for a search warrant 72 hours later from the courts. And this search warrant is retroactive. What the Bush administration has been trying to do is circumvent the judicial system, circumvent search warrants, and circumvent American citizens Fourth Amendment Rights. And all this time, President Bush is claiming he needs these almost "dictatorial" powers to fight terrorism. To give a president this much power, to give him the ability to act above the law--without any form of checks against an abuse of that unfettered power--could tip our country away from our cherished democratic ideals, and into a murky dictatorship. Who is to stop President Bush from spying on, not only anti-war protestors or Quakers, but also Democratic Party candidates who may oppose Bush and the war? Who is to stop President Bush from spying on Democratic Party emails regarding the congressional midterm elections, or the presidential elections? We don't know who these Americans are that the NSA is spying on, since the NSA will obviously claim the identities of these Americans are classified as a "national security interest." Revealing the identities of these Americans will help the terrorists. Who is to say that President Bush is already engaged in such activities? There's no check--no oversight! There is no way we can even tell what the administration is doing in their "fight against terrorism." That disturbs me.

There's more. According to the Times article:

[Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales said the president had "the inherent authority under the Constitution" as commander in chief to authorize the program. He also argued that the legal rationale followed the logic in a Supreme Court decision last year in the case of an enemy combatant named Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American citizen who was detained in Afghanistan on the battlefield.

In addition, Mr. Gonzales said the administration believed that Congress gave the president clear and broad authorization to attack Al Qaeda in a resolution passed on Sept. 14, 2001, that set the stage for the invasion of Afghanistan. That resolution authorized the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

Many members of Congress say that in authorizing the military invasion of Afghanistan days after the Sept. 11 attacks, they never intended or envisioned that the authority could be applied to searches without warrants within the United States.

I never would have expected that President Bush would use this resolution as a means to give him the legal authority to domestically spy on Americans. And I'd say that Congress never expected this either. What is amazing is that Congress passed this vaguely-worded resolution, which has given the president an almost "blank cheque" to do anything he wants in the name of "fighting terrorism." And yet, because of the vague wording, this resolution would suite the Bush neocons for pushing the boundaries of their police state, and destroying the civil liberties and protections of Americans.

So now what is Congress going to do? Will they stand up against this presidential power grab? In this Yahoo News story, titled Senate Members Seek Spying Probe:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rebuffing assurances from
President George W. Bush, bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate's Intelligence Committee called on Tuesday for an immediate inquiry into his authorization of spying on Americans.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., right, accompanied by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., gestures during a Capitol Hill news conference to respond to President Bush's earlier news conference Monday, Dec. 19, 2005 where the president said he approved domestic spying on suspected terrorists without court orders. 'Where does he find in the Constitution the authority to tap the wires and the phones of American citizens without any court oversight?' said Levin. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for a joint investigation by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees into whether the government eavesdropped "without appropriate legal authority."

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in a committee session on Capitol Hill September 13, 2005. Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for a joint investigation by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees into whether the government eavesdropped 'without appropriate legal authority.' (Mannie Garcia/Reuters)

And Democrats are now saying they never approved this domestic spying program. According to the Associated Press story titled, Democrats Say They Didn't Back Wiretapping:

WASHINGTON - Some Democrats say they never approved a domestic wiretapping program, undermining suggestions by President Bush and his senior advisers that the plan was fully vetted in a series of congressional briefings.

"I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse, these activities," West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, said in a handwritten letter to Vice President Dick Cheney in July 2003. "As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney."

Rockefeller is among a small group of congressional leaders who have received briefings on the administration's four-year-old program to eavesdrop "without warrants" on international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the United States with suspected ties to al-Qaida.

Since the program was disclosed last week by The New York Times, current and former Congress members have been liberated to weigh in.

Former Sen. Bob Graham (news, bio, voting record), D-Fla., who was part of the Intelligence Committee's leadership after the 9/11 attacks, recalled a briefing about changes in international electronic surveillance, but does not remember being told of a program snooping on individuals in the United States.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., received several briefings and raised concerns, including in a classified letter, her spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said he, too, was briefed by the White House between 2002 and 2004 but was not told key details about the scope of the program.

Daschle's successor, Sen. Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record), D-Nev., said he received a single briefing earlier this year and that important details were withheld. "We need to investigate this program and the president's legal authority to carry it out," Reid said.

Republicans, too, were skeptical.

Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record), R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised hearings next year and said he would ask Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, his views of the president's authority for spying without a warrant.

The problem I see here is that Congress is still controlled by the Republicans. The Democrats are obviously outraged at this, but they do not have any control of either houses, control of the committees, or supoena power to obtain White House documents for investigating this illegal spying. Any investigations into this matter now rests with the Republicans. And are the Republicans going to investigate one of their own party members, currently sitting in the White House? Especially if the investigation reveals that Bush broke the law, opening his administration up to charges of impeachment? Or, will the Republicans resort to a sham investigation, as they have with the Iraqi intelligence failings and the marketing of the Iraq war, where the committee resolved to not investigate the White House role in the intelligence? The question to ask is how will the Republicans respond to this revelation--will they continue to remain mute in their party loyalties, or will they stand up for the Constitution and the country, over that of party loyalties? I can't say where that's going.

I'll talk about the New York Times in my next post.

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