An editorial / By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service
January 03, 2006
"If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why," said Bush. Fair enough, but the president decided to bypass the legal mechanism to do that - the 11-judge Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Obtaining a warrant from the court is hardly a cumbersome hurdle. Whole years go by without the court denying a warrant. Most warrants are granted within 24 hours. And if agents have to act immediately, they can do so as long as they retroactively apply for the warrant within the next three days. Bush's decision to short-circuit that court has caused one justice to resign.
Bush insists that NSA eavesdropping is confined to only "a few numbers," but published accounts put the number at more than 500 a day.
The president says that the NSA program is regularly reviewed and approved by top levels of government. Maybe so, but it turns out this wasn't always so. According to The New York Times, then-acting Attorney General James Comey refused to sign off on the program in 2004, necessitating a hurried visit by top Bush aides to the hospital bed of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft, who did sign off - reluctantly, it is reported.
In 2004, two years after he signed off on warrantless wiretaps, a president who prides himself on plain speaking and straight shooting said, "Anytime you hear the government talk about wiretap, it requires - a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."
Reminded of that over the weekend, Bush amended his remarks to say he had been talking about "(ital) roving (endital) wiretaps." Oh.
Under the expanded Patriot Act, which the president spent Tuesday urging Congress to renew, FBI agents have the power, without recourse to the courts, to grant themselves secret subpoenas called National Security letters for a wide variety of financial records. It turns out that the bureau was issuing 30,000 of these letters a year.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is promising, as a first order of business, hearings into the president's view that the government has basically an unfettered right to eavesdrop. They are overdue. Congress can no longer be passively acquiescent in these erosions of basic privacy.
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