Saturday, December 17, 2005

Wiretapping for freedom: the president's secrets revealed

In the 1978 movie Heaven Can Wait, there is a memorable scene in which heavenly administrator James Mason calls off an overly aggressive subordinate who is trying to shout down a man who insists that a mistake has been made.

"The probability of an individual being right," Mason states calmly, "increases in direct proportion to the energy expended trying to prove him wrong."

On Saturday President Bush threw out the weekly radio address he had already taped and spoke to the nation live from the White House's Roosevelt Room. He slammed the United States Senate for arguing with him about the Patriot Act and he accused the New York Times of endangering the country by revealing that he has authorized secret wiretaps of U.S. citizens without first getting warrants.

The Saturday speech followed a week of presidential speeches defending his policy in Iraq and his conduct of the war on terror. It preceded a live address to the nation on Sunday evening on the same subject.

That's a lot of energy expended trying to prove his critics wrong.

President Bush accused a bipartisan group of senators of being irresponsible and endangering the lives of Americans by blocking reauthorization of the Patriot Act. The senators believed that the law, which would permit federal agents to break into your home and search it without informing you for thirty days, lacked sufficient protections for the civil liberties of innocent citizens.

President Bush said he must have this authority in order to protect the lives of Americans.

The New York Times reported Friday, after holding the story for a year, that the White House has authorized the ultra-secret National Security Agency to use its vast technological resources to eavesdrop on Americans without following the legal requirements of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That law set up a special, secret court to authorize eavesdropping on suspected terrorists. Instead, President Bush signed a secret executive order allowing the NSA to wiretap Americans without a warrant from any court.

President Bush said he must have this authority in order to protect the lives of Americans.

The president said our freedom and way of life are under attack by brutal enemies who killed nearly 3,000 innocent Americans.

Yes, well, it's always something.

Our freedom and way of life have been threatened by Indian raids, civil war, two world wars, Sputnik, nuclear annihilation, inflation, malaise and terrorists with sharp objects. The Constitution doesn't give the president the power to do whatever he thinks necessary whenever our freedom and way of life are threatened.

In fact, nowhere in the presidential oath of office does the president swear to protect and defend the people of the United States. He takes an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The president said he is acting under his constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief and by authority of Congress' 2001 Joint Authorization for Use of Military Force.

That's an interesting viewpoint. It suggests that the president's powers to suspend the Bill of Rights are unlimited during a time of war, and that the war does not actually have to be declared by Congress, but may be infinitely expanded by the president from a thin and specific authorization to use military force in one instance.

It's one more thing to explore with Judge Samuel Alito in next month's confirmation hearings.

Freedom is protected in this country not by a president with unlimited power, but by a Constitution that limits and divides the power of the federal government. Under the Fourth Amendment, you are not obligated to prove to the government on any given day that you have done nothing wrong. The government is obligated to prove to a judge that there is probable cause to search your home for specific evidence.

If the president doesn't like it, he can suggest an amendment to the Constitution that repeals the Fourth Amendment or adds a provision that states, "Except when the president thinks it's necessary."

Let's all tune in Sunday night and see if he does.

Copyright 2005