WASHINGTON -- President Bush has the Democrats' number on Capitol Hill. All he has to do is play the fear card and invoke the war on terror and they will cave.What's more, the president has found out that he can break the law and the rubber stamp Democratic Congress will give him a pass every time. The fear of being branded "soft on terrorism" was enough to make the Democrats capitulate once again to the Bush administration's demands. Or was it simply a looming vacation and beckoning campaign travel that led them to desert the nation's capital after giving the National Security Agency the power to expand its eavesdropping program without a warrant. The Orwellian measure allows the federal government -- without a court order or oversight -- to intercept electronic communications between people in the U.S. and people outside the U.S. The old rule required that a special court give its approval for that kind of surveillance. The new law bypasses the court and empowers the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to authorize the surveillance. Oversight by the special foreign intelligence surveillance court is now severely limited to examining whether the government's guidelines for targeting overseas suspects are appropriate. The administration said the new law is designed to bring the Foreign Surveillance Act of 1978 "in step with advances in technology by restoring the government's power to gather information without a warrant on foreign intelligence on targets located overseas." Mike McConnell, the director of National Intelligence, asserted that he needed the expanded spying authority because "the government is significantly burdened in capturing overseas communications of foreign terrorists planning to conduct attacks inside the United States." McConnell -- who is pushing for more spy power -- and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- who has huge credibility problems -- will decide on the targets. Both will also have charge of oversight of the program. Figure that! In recent weeks, administration officials have warned that the United States is under a heightened terrorist threat. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid denounced the new legislation, saying it authorizes warrantless searches and surveillance of American phone calls, e-mails, homes, offices and personal records. Civil liberties advocates and most Democrats warned the law will allow the government to monitor communications between U.S. residents and people living outside the country -- without first getting approval from the secret foreign intelligence court. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the lawmakers were "stampeded by fear-mongering and deception." The White House stampeded members of Congress and they wilted. The question is who is going to protect the privacy rights of the U.S. citizen? Certainly not Bush and not Congress. The legislation has a six-month expiration date, but critics are concerned that it may become permanent. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., a member of the House Intelligence Committee said: "I'm not comfortable suspending the Constitution even temporarily." Holt added: "The countries we detest around the world are the ones that spy on their own people. Usually they say they do it for public safety and security." When Bush took the oath of office he swore to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." But after the 9/11 terrorist attack, he authorized a secret warrantless wiretapping program that allowed the NSA to intercept communications between individuals in the United States and others overseas when there is suspicion of a link to terrorism. Full details of the program have never been revealed. In ordering wiretapping without a warrant, Bush seemed to think that the laws did not apply to him. The compliant FISA court has turned down only one request for a warrant in the past two years. So what's his problem with obeying the law? He seems to be giving credence to President Nixon's famous quote: "If a president does it, it's not illegal." It boggles the mind to imagine what secret executive orders the next president will uncover after Bush leaves office and what the American people will eventually learn about the secret infringement of their rights. Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007 Hearst Newspapers.