If there are any Americans who still retain confidence in the Bush administration's judgment over foreign affairs -- after its inept pursuit of Osama bin Laden, its bungling of prewar intelligence on Saddam Hussein, its botched planning for the occupation of Iraq and its hostility to international norms on torture -- then surely they will be rattled by the disclosure last week that President Bush circumvented federal law and ordered a secret government intelligence agency to spy on Americans.
Even staunch Republicans such as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania say they are troubled by the New York Times account. This raises the possibility that maybe -- finally -- moderates in Congress will begin to exercise some independent thinking and critical judgment toward the foreign policy of an administration that has proven itself arrogant, secretive and misguided.
In remarks on Saturday, the president tried to justify his secret order to the National Security Agency (NSA) by arguing that the nation's intelligence needs will sometimes override the privacy interests of its citizens.
This is an offensive, but by now predictable, effort at misdirection. No one has disputed that a nation must sometimes make tradeoffs between civil liberties and the requirements of national defense. The question is whether the president, alone and without independent review, gets to make that call.
Congress weighed this question carefully some 25 years ago and decided that the answer is no. In the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act it decided that the president must present evidence to a judge and obtain a court warrant before having the NSA eavesdrop domestically. In recognition of security needs, Congress established a secret and speedy tribunal to handle such requests. Justice Department statistics suggest that the process works: From 1979 to 2002, no warrant application was rejected; retired Adm. Bobby Inman says the judges typically rule within two days.
One might imagine a chief executive so wise and omniscient that ordinary Americans would trust him to waive their civil liberties in a national emergency. But that would not be this chief executive -- the one who heeded John Yoo rather than John McCain on the question of torture and who trusted a defector named "Curveball" over veteran intelligence officers on the issue of Saddam's weapons.
Now the White House is in furious spin mode. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says Bush has the constitutional authority to use the NSA this way. But four previous presidents, Republicans and Democrats, didn't think so. The president says the Times and its sources have revealed vital secrets to the enemy. But the leak never would have happened and the surveillance would have remained secret if the president himself had followed the law.
All this sounds like an administration that talks only to itself and hears only what it likes. That's not merely inept, it's dangerous.
© 2005 The Star Tribune