One of the 16 Senate Democrats who buckled to White House pressure to expand the president's warrantless-wiretapping program happened to visit this newspaper last week. He faced but failed to adequately answer questions about his vote.
Ever the centrist politician, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar explained that he was trying to balance the nation's very real national-security needs with every citizen's protected civil liberties. That's laudable, but neither he nor the Bush administration has explained how this law makes us safer.
In the absence of such clear talk, it is fair to infer that the "Protect America Act of 2007" does not so much protect citizens' safety as it serves the president's political agenda. And the Democrats who curtsied before the imperial presidency helped move us away from a core American value - individual civil liberties.
The "Protect America Act" removes judicial scrutiny of certain types of phone calls and e-mails - those involving foreigners and persons in the United States. For three decades, presidents have had to seek warrants for such surveillance through a secret court.
Now, however, the attorney general may issue warrants for people "reasonably" believed to be on foreign soil. As the American Civil Liberties Union notes, the spying may inadvertently sweep up the private conversations of innocent American citizens. And the new law offers no privacy protection to such citizens.
Only a meaningless vestige of judicial review of such surveillance remains: Under the new law, the attorney general will be required to tell the secret court only the broad outlines of the spying program. The attorney general will not have to disclose what will happen to American calls and e-mails that are intercepted, the ACLU points out. Nor will he be required to divulge how many Americans have been monitored.
Furthermore, the only accountability required by the new law is a bi-annual report to Congress on violations of the secret rules of the top-secret surveillance. And who determines which activities constitute violations? The attorney general.
That would be less appalling if the nation's top law-enforcement officer were a man of honor. But our attorney general is Alberto Gonzales. This is the same man who declared some provisions of the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete." This is the man who falsely testified - in Congress - that the U.S. Constitution does not grant citizens the right of habeas corpus. This is a man whose congressional testimony has been lambasted by members of both major parties as being grossly misleading.
Why remove the judicial check on this official's power?
Salazar, who met with the Camera's editorial board and editorial advisory board last week, explained that Congress was told that the new law was needed because of "chatter" among suspected terrorists about an imminent attack in the United States.
Salazar pointed out that before voting for the administration's bill, he voted for a failed Democratic bill that included judicial oversight. He noted that the "Protect America Act" expires in six months. In the interim, he said, Congress has time to study the balance of "power vs. liberty."
Salazar said he would "fight to have court review put back in the law." And, he added, "We need to have a balance here. We need to make sure we don't throw civil liberties under the bus."
Yes, we do. But thanks to Salazar and his ilk, we just did. Instead of explaining exactly how the president's new unchecked powers will make us safer, the White House and its enablers have responded with bluster and obfuscation. Salazar and his cronies have less than six months to right their wrong. They must develop the courage to stand on principle, particularly when the principle at stake is quintessentially and fundamentally American.
Clint Talbott, for the editorial board
© 2007 The Boulder Daily Camera