George W. Bush's decision to authorize intelligence agents to electronically eavesdrop on people in the United States without court-approved warrants is a stunning example of the president's apparent disdain for the rights of ordinary people, the Constitution and the rule of law.
According to the New York Times, starting in 2002 Bush turned the National Security Agency loose to monitor the international phone calls and e-mail of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in this country. The president's green light marked a profound shift in the intelligence-gathering practices of the NSA, which has traditionally operated abroad. It was also almost certainly illegal and unconstitutional. Such snooping must be stopped.
The White House, tellingly, has not challenged the Times' account. Officials have instead attempted to justify the eavesdropping, citing the need to move quickly in the war on terror, while insisting that Bush would never order anything illegal.
That rings hollow coming from an administration under fire for abusing detainees and trying to legally redefine torture while insisting it would never torture anyone. It is an administration that placed itself above the law in claiming the power to indefinitely lock up American citizens whom it labeled enemy combatants, without criminal charges, legal representation or a day in court. It is an administration dogged by accusations of ghost detainees, secret prisons and delivering detainees for interrogation in countries known to use torture.
There are people in the world who would like nothing better than to do the United States harm. Washington should work overtime to uncover those plotters and their plots. But that does not justify the NSA's disturbingly un-American violation of the right to privacy.
It was just that kind of unchecked spying on Vietnam War protesters and civil rights activists in the 1970s that prompted Congress to establish the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides a legal, regulated avenue for such monitoring. Intelligence operatives, usually from the FBI, have only to show probable cause to believe that a person is an agent of a foreign power or an international terrorist group to get a warrant to monitor their communications.
The court is readily accessible, able to respond quickly and has granted thousands of warrants over the years. It has, in fact, almost never refused a request. There was no need for an end run around the court and no justification for skirting the law.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.