As the eavesdropping story unfolds, new information is rapidly coming out, and none of it is encouraging. President Bush has admitted that he has allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on people within U.S. borders who have known links to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. This was all done outside of existing law, which requires the NSA or other groups to get a warrant from a secret court located in Washington, DC. He has claimed that he has the legal authority to do so without consulting with Congress or any other federal court because of the law Congress signed just after the 9/11 attacks authorizing him to use whatever force he deemed necessary to fight terrorists. There are a number of problems with this defense, however, and this entire process is screaming out for investigations to determine how far the president has taken his supposed power for domestic spying.
According to Tom Daschle, who at the time the original congressional vote to give Bush power to fight the war on terror was the leading Democrat in the Senate, the original language Bush wanted included taking the fight within U.S. borders. Daschle did not allow this because of trouble with possible trampling of our civil liberties. He claims that things like domestic wiretapping and eavesdropping was not discussed and the focus was on foreign/international terror groups and the nations that harbored them. And within the Patriot Act itself, a separate piece of legislation, Bush and the Department of Justice has wanted congressional approval for things like widespread wiretaps and access to library records, etc., which have been resisted by members of both parties because of the potential for abuse of our civil liberties. The permanent extension of the Patriot Act has been delayed by the Senate because of these issues and the language that the administration wants for certain domestic concerns.
As the New York Times has just posted on its web site, it appears that what Bush has admitted to is incorrect. In fact, the spying that has taken place within U.S. borders appears to be much more widespread. The NYT has multiple, unnamed current and former government officials and telecommunications personnel who have gone on record stating that the NSA has been receiving large volumes of various international phone records from our telecommnications companies and monitoring Internet usage of private citizens, looking for patterns that could hint at terrorist activity. These records apparently cover a wide range of citizens and other people living in the U.S., and goes well beyond the Bush claim that only individuals with known (or possibly highly suspected) links to terror groups have been targeted. All of this has been done without any oversight or a single warrant from any court to justify the action!! Does this not sound like one of those reasons we had problems with the former Soviet Union and others like Saddam, who spied on their own people? The entire reason we have the existing law that requires warrants from a court is to have at least a minimal amount of protection for civil liberty and a minimal amount of oversight to prevent abuse of executive power. Any level of trust in the president is quickly fading away as this story progresses.
There is the argument from the adminstration that speed is essential, meaning the NSA and other law enforcement agencies like the FBI need to be able to set up wiretaps and monitor telecommunications activity at a moment's notice, and that warrants delay the process. This is especially true with new technologies that allow instant global communcation that are available to anyone. With the technology that now exists, the administration argues the 1978 law is out of date and not relevant with the current environment. All true. The trouble is, it is still the law on the books and still requires warrants! But, what I don't understand, is that in the existing law the government can go ahead and eavesdrop at a moment's notice, wthout a warrant, as long as they go back and get the court issued warrant retroactively within 72 hours. Bush can have the NSA and other agencies do their surveillance work within U.S. borders, on the fly and in real time, without delay, and then go back to get the warrant that gives us some level of protection for our rights and some assurance that the surveillance is just of suspected bad guys and not randomly affecting any old citizen. No problem. It is all fine within existing law. Bush has admittedly broken this law, and with the latest NYT revelation of widespread eavesdropping and Internet monitoring, we may have our answer as to why Bush is going around the law. Perhaps he and the administration believe some of the spying being done is questionable in a legal context and they do not believe warrants would be allowed. We must find out if this is the case.
This has become a very disturbing story indeed. It screams for Congressional and independent investigations to find the true scope of domestic spying. If the latest claims by the NYT are confirmed and there is indeed widespread monitoring of law abiding U.S. citizens who have no suspected terror links, one of the countless questions becomes: is this an impeachable offense? If Clinton can be impeached for lying about sex, should a president be impeached for possibly lying about and covering up widespread spying on Americans that is outside of existing law, with total disregard to any checks and balance or oversight protection for our civil liberties? We simply cannot have a president with, dare I say, near dictatorial power to do whatever he wants outside of the law. Contact your congressional representatives and demand that we discover what the true extent of domestic spying is.
For an excellent post on this with numerous links to relevant sites and details, read Zenpundit.