Sunday, December 18, 2005

George the Second

The New York Times ran a story Friday that detailed more than three years of spying on Americans approved by the Bush administration and not reviewed by courts:
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.
This prompted a rare, live reading of the president's weekly address, White House link, in which George W. Bush said that this report is accurate, but that these measures are needed for the war on terror -- just like we need to stay in Iraq until it is a Western democracy.

Senator Russ Feingold has a response posted on his website, link, in which the senator references the filibuster of the Patriot Act:
The President's shocking admission that he authorized the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens, without going to a court and in violation of the Constitution and laws passed by Congress, further demonstrates the urgent need for these protections. The President believes that he has the power to override the laws that Congress has passed. This is not how our democratic system of government works. The President does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow. He is a president, not a king.
More reactions are available in this New York Times follow up, including comments from Senator Arlen Specter.

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau follow up on their original scoop in the New York Times this weekend:
In the early years of the operation, there were few, if any, controls placed on the activity by anyone outside the security agency, officials say. It was not until 2004, when several officials raised concerns about its legality, that the Justice Department conducted its first audit of the operation. Security agency officials had been given the power to select the people they would single out for eavesdropping inside the United States without getting approval for each case from the White House or the Justice Department, the officials said.
The matter of Congressional involvement is hotly debated, analysis in the Washington Post has:
A high-ranking intelligence official with firsthand knowledge said in an interview yesterday that Vice President Cheney, then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet and Michael V. Hayden, then a lieutenant general and director of the National Security Agency, briefed four key members of Congress about the NSA's new domestic surveillance on Oct. 25, 2001, and Nov. 14, 2001, shortly after Bush signed a highly classified directive that eliminated some restrictions on eavesdropping against U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

In describing the briefings, administration officials made clear that Cheney was announcing a decision, not asking permission from Congress. How much the legislators learned is in dispute.

Former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who chaired the Senate intelligence committee and is the only participant thus far to describe the meetings extensively and on the record, said in interviews Friday night and yesterday that he remembers "no discussion about expanding [NSA eavesdropping] to include conversations of U.S. citizens or conversations that originated or ended in the United States" -- and no mention of the president's intent to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Dana Milbank, also in the Post, writes that Congress may begin to perform more oversight of the White House.

Also in the Post, Charles Babington writes that this will affect the drama over the Patriot Act.

Condoleezza Rice, who was NSA to Bush when this spying began, was asked on Meet the Press about this report:
MR. RUSSERT: The law is very clear that a person is guilty of an offense unless they get a court order before seeking to wiretap an American citizen. Why did the president not get a court order?

SEC'Y RICE: The FISA is indeed an important source of that authority, and in fact, the administration actively uses FISA. But FISA, in 1970...

MR. RUSSERT: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

SEC'Y RICE: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, exactly. FISA, which came out of 1978 at a time when the principal concern was, frankly, the activities of people on behalf of foreign governments, rather stable targets, very different from the kind of urgency of detection and thereby protection of a country that is needed today. And so the president has drawn on additional authorities that he has under the Constitution and under other statutes.

MR. RUSSERT: What are the other authorities?

SEC'Y RICE: Tim, again, I'm not a lawyer, but the president has constitutional authority and he has statutory authorities.

MR. RUSSERT: But no one's explained that. No one has said what is--in fact, in 1972...

SEC'Y RICE: Tim...

MR. RUSSERT: ...President Nixon tried to wiretap American citizens and the Supreme Court ruled he violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans.

SEC'Y RICE: Tim, let's remember that we are talking about the ability to collect information on the geographic territory that is the United States. Some people are American citizens; others are not. What the president wants to prevent is the use of American territory as a safe haven for communications between terrorist operating here or people with terrorist links operating here and people operating outside of the country.

You know, I sat through the 9/11 Commission, and in the 9/11 Commission, one of the biggest and most compelling concerns was that we had to understand the link between what terrorists were doing abroad and what terrorists were doing here. Prior to September 11, there were people sitting inside the United States--the president talked about two of them, Mitar and Hamzi, who were operating inside the United States, communicating outside of the United States. That's a scene that you cannot allow to exist in a time when if somebody now commits a crime, where this is not law enforcement of the kind where people commit a crime, you then investigate that crime and bring them to justice. This is a case where if people commit the crime, then thousands die. And that's what we learned on September 11 and so the president under his authorities – he is commander in chief; he needs to protect this country – has authorized this program. But he is also very concerned about civil liberties and it is why there are so many safeguards attached to this program and why, frankly, several members of Congress were briefed.

It is clear that the "briefing" of Congress was minimal at best, and perhaps intentionally an effort to minimize the degree of this measure.

President Bush has consistently pushed the envelope on executive power. The creative and manipulative assertion that as commander-in-chief he somehow has the power to conduct intelligence missions on U.S. citizens is a dangerous precedent. It is, moreover, an offense to the best traditions of this country and Republican democracy in general.


Blogger zen said...

It is, moreover, an offense to the best traditions of this country and Republican democracy in general.
Very well said.
Keeping people scared and threatened has been the rationale behind most of the power grabs of this administration. WMDs, Saddam, Mushroom clouds etc. are the threats that are sensationalized to the point of panic. They are the trump cards in the sales pitches that there is absolutley no other approach to making us secure than their way. Yet the loss of liberty and freedom (and of dissent) are surrendered in the midst of this spin-hysteria. We have Free Speech Zones, where the Constitution no longer protects our rights. We now have no search and seizure protections. We have pushed the envelope on what is creul and inhumane treatment of prisoners...and these are all blatantly fought for by this administration. It's incredibly Orwellian.

2:08 PM  
Blogger copy editor said...

I believe this administration (in particular Cheney) is convinced that al Qaeda can and soon will do great harm to our country once again. They may be right, and of course I hope they are not.

My fear is that democracies do not last in an existential war. That is a caution from history, and may teach us very little about our situation -- but it must be noted.

5:35 PM  

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