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The Power of Fear Too Often Exploited For Political Gain

by Clint Talbot

It is Sept. 11, so it's no surprise to see the Bush administration still striving to gain political advantage from the national tragedy.

On the eve of the six-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the nation's top spy-agency official urged Congress to extend a law granting the president broad and mostly unchecked surveillance power.

In congressional testimony Monday, Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, said the "Protect America Act of 2007" had helped thwart an alleged terrorist plot in Germany.

McConnell said the law helped American officials "see and understand all the connections" between the individual plotters and terrorists in Asia.

"Because we could understand it, we could help our partners through a long process of monitoring and observation, realizing that the perpetrators had actually obtained explosive liquids, hydrogen peroxide, which they would condense, or try to condense to an explosive," Mr. McConnell said.

If the Bush administration had not spent the last six years milking the fear of terrorism for political gain, if the administration had not been pervasively furtive and unaccountable, citizens might be justified in taking McConnell at his word. But it did, and we shouldn't.

Like many of the Bush administration's cherished pieces of legislation, the "Protect America Act" was not the product of thoughtful, legislative deliberation. It was railroaded through Congress in three days. Democrats, who presumably control both chambers, feared being accused of being soft on terrorism if they didn't go soft on civil liberties.

The new law removes judicial scrutiny of certain types of phone calls and e-mails - those involving foreigners and persons in the United States. For three decades, presidents have had to seek warrants for such surveillance through a secret court set up by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The president doesn't need a court's permission to spy on foreigners. But American citizens are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. The administration, however, seems to view the Fourth Amendment as a nettlesome obstacle.

In "The Terror Presidency," a new book, former U.S. assistant attorney general Jack Goldsmith gives an insider's perspective on this attitude. Goldsmith, whose work was profiled in the Washington Post, said he sympathized with the view that the 1978 law should be updated in light of new technology such as cell phones and international call routing.

"But I deplored the way the White House went about fixing the problem," Goldsmith writes, specifically citing the efforts of David Addington, a lawyer and later chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney. "We're one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious (FISA) court," Goldsmith quoted Addington as saying.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Cheney, Addington and others "dealt with FISA the way they dealt with other laws they didn't like: they blew through them in secret, based on flimsy legal opinions that they guarded closely so no one could question the legal basis for the operations," Goldsmith wrote.

That attitude is apparent from the outside as well. This week, the American people were informed that a law removing court scrutiny from surveillance of certain American citizens was instrumental in the capture of an Islamic plot in Germany. How, exactly, did these new restrictions on American civil liberties ensnare foreign terrorists? We aren't told. We are merely asked to believe.

Just a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush gave one of the best speeches of his life, and he was most eloquent when he defended the Constitution. "We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them."

It is time to remember those words, and that obligation.

Clint Talbott, for the editorial board

© 2007 The Daily Camera

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