Seeking to justify its sweeping curtailment of Americans' Fourth Amendment protections, the Bush administration is blaming the spread of new technology.
In particular, cell phones and fiber-optic cables. CIA Director Michael Hayden told a Senate committee last week that the exploitation of such advanced technology by terrorists makes it necessary for the U.S. government to eavesdrop on Americans without getting court warrants.
That warning has a nicely calculated ominous tone, but it's completely unpersuasive. It's like arguing for a rollback in Americans' First Amendment rights because al-Qaida operatives have discovered satellite radio and high-definition television.
Regardless, the Republican-controlled Congress is moving ahead on "modernizing" a 28-year-old federal law that governs spying on foreign agents. The Cheney-Specter bill, as the proposed new law is known, is being promoted by the White House and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., as a "compromise" on the administration's warrantless surveillance program.
In truth, this legislation looks more like capitulation than compromise.
Specter's flip-flop is as surprising as it is disappointing. Last year, when the White House's secret domestic spying program was disclosed, the occasional GOP maverick denounced the wiretapping as "wrong." He declared that President Bush, by refusing to seek judicial or congressional approval, was acting outside the law.
"We're not going to give him a blank check," he said at the time.
Now it appears Specter and fellow Republicans are poised to give him exactly that. The only "compromise" by the president is his promise to have his National Security Agency wiretapping program reviewed by the FISA court, a special intelligence tribunal established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 28 years ago.
In return for that mild concession, the administration would get its spying program declared retroactively legal. The FISA law would be rewritten to allow the president to wiretap without a court order, eliminating judicial review. And neither the courts nor Congress would be informed of the number of Americans being wiretapped or the names of individuals under surveillance.
That opens a very wide doorway to potential abuse. It means any lawyer, journalist or other innocent American who has ever been contacted by a person being monitored by U.S. agents could become the target of wiretaps that go on indefinitely, completely unbeknown to any judge or member of Congress.
It gets worse. The Cheney-Specter bill also would require all state and federal cases challenging such wiretapping to be transferred to the FISA court, where proceedings are secret and cases can be dismissed on any grounds.
Aggressive federal surveillance of anyone legitimately suspected of aiding U.S. enemies makes perfect sense. But insisting that such spying requires sacrificing civil liberties makes no sense whatsoever.
Taken as a whole, the Cheney-Specter bill is more than just a blank check for Bush. It's a whole book of blank checks.
America's founders opposed giving so much power to the executive branch. Shamefully, today's Congress appears ready to do it.
© 2006 OregonLive.com