The terror card

August 07, 2007

President Bush's crushing victory last weekend over the Democratic Congress, forcing its leaders to accept secret surveillance of American citizens without court approval, demonstrates that Mr. Bush's favorite fear tactic has not lost its potency.

Vague hints of a possible terrorist attack on American soil within the next few weeks set a tone of urgency. The administration's "more, more, more" negotiating stance made compromise impossible. And the still-palpable fears among Americans since the 9/11 attacks suggested that a principled stand of opposition before a monthlong recess could have disastrous political consequences.

Politics has become a blood sport in Washington. Yet brutal tactics won't end if lawmakers who know better allow themselves to be bullied and buffaloed. Congress' answer to Mr. Bush's take-it-or-leave-it deal should have been, "See you in September."

Instead, Congress gave the National Security Agency and other surveillance agencies broad new powers to monitor telephone conversations, e-mails and other private communications if they are part of a foreign intelligence investigation. This authority is far more sweeping than the previous 1978 law, which required approval by a secret court, and even exceeds what the administration initially asked for last week.

Warrantless wiretapping has been a topic of heated dispute in Washington since 2005, when it was first learned that the administration had been listening without court approval to conversations between Americans and parties overseas who may have some connection to terrorists.

While insisting that post-9/11 legislation granted the president such authority, Mr. Bush agreed earlier this year to seek warrants for such wiretaps. A backlog of cases in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court apparently prompted Mr. Bush to seek specific approval to bypass the court.

His initial request applied to conversations between people overseas that were electronically routed through the United States. The legislation as enacted, though, also allows warrantless wiretaps on conversations when one party is in this country as long as the other is a foreigner under investigation. The check on this sweeping authority is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the company man who told Mr. Bush he didn't need any further approval from Congress.

Congress scored just one concession: The new law expires in six months. Lawmakers must make good on their promises to tighten it up a lot sooner.

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