Published on Tuesday, December 27, 2005 by the New York Daily News
A Shocking Contempt for the Law
by Erroll Lewis
Although he likes to talk about the God-given blessings of liberty, President Bush should be judged by his actions, not his words - and his actions show a man who has violated the civil liberties of Americans and must be checked. The shocking revelation that Bush has personally ordered secret wiretaps for years without court approval are part of a White House policy of placing the President above the law.
"The President of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy," said Vice President Cheney last week.
Bush's power grab runs counter to the Constitution's elaborate system of checks and balances, which requires most significant presidential actions to be approved by Congress or the courts - even on crucial questions of war and peace under emergency conditions. All the more reason Congress, which is considering renewal of the USA Patriot Act, should let the law expire.
Passed in haste shortly after the 9/11 attack, the Patriot Act gives broad authority to the Justice Department to spy on Americans. But this administration needs more checks on its power, not less.
Consider Bush's refusal to abide by the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, which requires the National Security Agency to get court approval for domestic wiretaps. Even if the designated judge is unavailable, the law allows the NSA to get a judge from a surveillance court to sign off on the wiretap, retroactively and in secret, as much as 72 hours after the fact.
From 1995 to 2004, the surveillance court turned down only four of the feds' 10,617 requests for wiretapping warrants, according to The Washington Post. But amazingly, Bush says that having to get any court approval, even after the wiretaps are put in place, has hampered the search for terrorists - so he ignored the law and ordered the wiretapping anyway.
That prompted at least one member of the surveillance court, Judge James Robertson, to resign, apparently in protest of Bush's end-run.
Bush claims the government hasn't abused its domestic spy powers, but that isn't true. To cite one example among many, groups opposed to the war in Iraq held a seminar on pacifism at Drake University in Iowa in November 2003 - and were later hit with federal subpoenas demanding the names of the people who attended the anti-war forum, along with a gag order forbidding anyone from discussing the subpoenas.
The feds dropped the subpoenas when the groups went public. The Telegraph Herald of Dubuque, Iowa, warned that "government is nurturing a culture in which citizens' civil rights are viewed as a minor inconvenience."
Bush, of course, disagrees. "I've got the authority to do this," he said of the wiretaps at a press conference last week. "I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country."
Wrong on both counts, Mr. President.
Errol Louis was born in Harlem, raised in New Rochelle and lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife, Juanita Scarlett. He is the son of a retired NYPD inspector and formerly served as associate editor of The New York Sun. He has taught college, co-founded an inner-city community credit union, run for City Council and was once named by New York Magazine as one of 10 New Yorkers making a difference "with energy, vision and independent thinking." He holds degrees from Harvard, Yale and Brooklyn Law School.
© 2005 New York Daily News