Eavesdropping smart, but we should have known

December 20, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Considering his track record, I am not too shocked to hear that President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on people inside the United States. I am only disturbed by his reluctance to tell us about it.

Months after 9/11, the president ordered the agency to monitor international telephone calls and e-mails of perhaps thousands of people inside the United States without warrants in order to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to al-Qaida, The New York Times reported.

That's not a dumb thing to do, although it could be illegal. The NSA, which is so secret that insiders have long said its initials really stand for "no such agency," has a specific mission to spy on communications abroad, not here at home.

So many constitutional concerns were raised about the agency's conducting surveillance without warrants by, among others, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a judge presiding over a secret court that oversees intelligence matters, that the Bush administration suspended the operation last year, the Times quoted officials as saying.

So, why didn't we hear about it sooner? The Times says it delayed publication of the report for a year because the White House said it could jeopardize continuing investigations. The newspaper also said it continues to withhold information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists. That sounds like a sensible move, in light of national security concerns. I wish the administration was just as respectful of the public's right to know that their government is spying on them without going to court for a warrant.

The story appropriately broke during the recent Senate debate over the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the government's ability to search and wiretap in the wake of 9/11.

It broke shortly after The Washington Post's disclosure that the United States has been spiriting al-Qaida suspects to secret European prisons for, as the administration puts it, "aggressive" questions.

And the story came as Mr. Bush was backed into agreeing to a blanket U.S. ban on torture.

Those are the sorts of aggressive expansions of government power over human rights for which the administration has become notorious since 9/11. The administration has pushed for expansions of government power and left it to the courts to push it back.

Sometimes such moves are necessary. Other times not. Either way, the public needs to hold government accountable, no matter what party is in power, because once you give up your rights, it is very hard to get them back.

It's not hard for me to understand, looking back at the panic-stricken months following 9/11, why the Bush administration would want NSA to move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to the United States.

Nor is it hard to believe that the agency's efforts have helped disrupt terrorist plots and prevent attacks inside the United, as the administration says NSA has done. What I find disturbing is the administration's reluctance to let the rest of us know that it has radically shifted the long-standing relationship between our government intelligence agencies.

In light of past abuses by the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies, Congress installed safeguards to make the government more accountable to the public and elected representatives. In this case, it is questionable that even Congress was as well informed as it should have been.

Was the White House too arrogant for its own good? Have we, the public, as the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan used to say, defined the administration deviancy down? The media can probe, but members of Congress have the subpoena power to demand answers for the big questions that need to be asked. They should use it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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