Why warrantless wiretaps?

December 20, 2005

In its typical way of doing things, the Bush administration has tried to turn the revelation of domestic eavesdropping in the name of fighting terrorism into a test of patriotism and prudence by those, including the media, who would disagree with the program or challenge the authority of President Bush to order it. But pointing fingers at others shouldn't get the administration off the hook for its own questionable, if not illegal, conduct.

The fact that Mr. Bush authorized wiretaps without warrants or court approval on as many as 500 people at a time within the United States who are suspected of having connections to terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaida, was first revealed in the New York Times late last week. A 2002 presidential order has allowed the National Security Agency, which normally tracks communication abroad, to listen in on American citizens, permanent legal residents, tourists and other foreigners by monitoring their international phone and e-mail conversations. Since the program was exposed, Mr. Bush and other administration officials, have pointed to the president's powers as commander-in-chief and to a Congressional resolution passed after Sept. 11 to justify its existence. The administration has also insisted that the program has been closely monitored from within and was known to selected members of Congress who did not object too strenuously.

Mr. Bush and other supporters have insisted that the program has helped thwart additional attacks within the U.S. and that it has been balanced to insure security while still protecting civil liberties. But the administration has danced around an adequate explanation of why it couldn't wait to get approval from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that can authorize a wiretap warrant if someone is shown to be an agent of a foreign power, including international terrorist groups. Or, why it couldn't have sought new legislation if advanced technology has made the existing warrant-approval process obsolete. Instead, Mr. Bush has attacked the media messengers who brought the issue to light and others who have dared to challenge it.

Congress will likely hold hearings to determine the scope of the program and the president's claimed authority to conduct it. Those are questions that deserve to be aired fully, even as the administration is trying to blow smoke.

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