We are now learning what President Bush considers to be the limits of his power--nothing.
In public appearances this week, Bush defended his program of domestic spying without court approval, citing the inherent war powers of the presidency under the U.S. Constitution.
The president points to his status as commander-in-chief and the resolution -- approved by Congress three days after the 9/11 attacks -- authorizing him to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against the terrorists.
It is an obvious overreach of presidential prerogative; thin justification for what amounts to a snooping foray against Americans and others in the U.S.
It all smacks of France's Louis XIV's famous dictum: "L'etat, c'est moi" -- "I am the state."
The administration is on shaky legal ground. Last week, the Justice Department issued a 42-page analysis declaring the president "will exercise all authority available to him, consistent with the Constitution, to protect the people of the United States."
The Justice Department brief also contended that some presidential powers are simply "beyond congressional ability to regulate."
But the law is the law. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 -- which was enacted after in-depth congressional hearings on domestic spying -- established a special court to issue warrants for electronic eavesdropping on suspected foreign agents inside the United States.
So far, that court has been basically a rubber stamp for government petitions, rarely turning down a request at crisis times. The court permits emergency wiretaps without court approval for up to 72 hours.
If court procedures tie law enforcement's hands, Congress is open to fixing it. "I know of no member of Congress, frankly, who, if the administration came and said, 'Here's why we need this capability,' that they wouldn't get it," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But the Bush administration wanted unfettered freedom to spy on who they want, when they want, with no legal constraints whatsoever.
The president and his cohorts are engaged in a full court press to justify their dubious legal position.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on domestic spying Feb. 6. But if this GOP-run Congress runs true to form, Bush will have clear sailing.
In an appearance at Kansas State University earlier this week, President Bush claimed that the post-9/11 congressional resolution provided him with all the justification he needed.
"Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people, but it didn't prescribe the tactics," Bush said. "It said, 'Mr. President, you've got the power to protect us, but we're not going to tell you how.'"
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Bush's stand is all too reminiscent of former President Richard Nixon who said during the unraveling of the Watergate scandal: "If a president does it, it's not illegal."
Bush might take note that the Supreme Court and Congress said otherwise, leading to Nixon's resignation from the highest office in the land in 1974.
Civil liberties' advocates are pressing lawsuits to challenge domestic spying. But with Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. expected to win Senate approval within the next week, the Supreme Court is likely to tilt further to the right. So I doubt if President Bush is worried that a civil libertarian challenge to presidential power will survive court scrutiny.
The Democrats, silent for too long, are finally stepping up to the plate, with former Vice President Al Gore leading the charge.
Gore -- who lost out to Bush in the presidential race in 2000 -- is loud and clear, standing with the growing number of critics.
"A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government," Gore said. He called for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Bush's domestic spying.
Gore called the spying "a shameful exercise of power."
The administration claims the American people are on its side. White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that recent surveys "overwhelmingly show that the American people want us to do everything within our power to protect them."
McClellan skirted around whether that included breaking the law, but contended that Bush was within his presidential power "to do everything he can to prevail in the war on terrorism."
But the polls are mixed.
A recent AP-Ipsos poll said 56 percent of those polled believed that the Bush administration should seek a warrant before eavesdropping on overseas calls to Americans, or vice versa.
A Gallup Poll on Tuesday showed 51 percent of Americans deemed domestic spying without court approval "wrong" and 58 percent backed appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate.
The Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights speaks of the right of people "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches..."
I wonder what other secret orders Bush has issued to enhance his powers and diminish ours?