A few years back I was browsing the shelves at Barnes and Noble and came across a book entitled Worse Than Watergate by former Nixon White House counsel John Dean. The author argues that the Bush Administration’s secrecy, cronyism and power grabbing are worse than anything he saw in his time in the Nixon Administration. After skimming a few chapters, I decided that Dean’s thesis was a bit far-fetched – after all, the Bush Administration may have been incompetent, but certainly did not delve into the criminal activities that Tricky Dick’s henchmen were known for.
Fast-forward to 2006 and the recent National Security Agency wiretapping scandal, and it seems like Dean is onto something. Dominating the news today is a classic Constitutional crisis, similar to the one that gripped the nation in the Watergate scandal. Similar to the Nixon era, George W. Bush’s administration claims that it is above the law and even the Constitution.
In an effort to curb the power of the executive branch, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 to set out certain parameters for the President to wiretap citizens. The law indicates that approval from a secret court is the sole method of authorizing domestic spying. Bush broke that law when he launched his NSA spying program to listen in on possible terrorist phone calls and intercept emails.
It’s important to note that the United State should be vigorous in its pursuit of terrorists and make every effort within our legal system to monitor and apprehend them. There should be a domestic wiretapping program that carefully monitors potential terrorists without impinging on Americans’ right to privacy. The disturbing and confounding part of this saga is that the Bush Administration effectively said, “Screw the law, we’re going to do whatever the hell we want.” Had the President asked Congress in the months following 9/11 for a wiretapping program, they would have certainly agreed to it. Instead, the administration has gone around the law and outside the acceptable boundaries of our democratic system.
The legal defense of the administration points to a joint resolution by Congress three days after 9/11 that authorizes the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force” to wage war on the terrorists. However, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service has debunked these claims by the White House in a report earlier this month. The organization stated that Congress had no intention of giving the President a blank check to spy on American citizens.
This defense by the administration is flimsy, at best. Robert Reinstein, Dean of Temple Law School, told The New York Times that the NSA wiretapping program is “a pretty straightforward case where the President is acting illegally.” In a Supreme Court opinion in 2004, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “a state of war is not a blank check for the President.”
The American public should be pretty frightened by our government’s Orwellian behavior. The right to complete privacy is one of the most cherished values in free societies around the world. The NSA program represents a case where the government is spying on Americans without any evidence that they are engaging in illegal activities. But the more disturbing revelation is that the Bush presidency has turned Nixonian in its contempt for Congress, the Courts and any institution that stands in its way. Unfortunately, the miserable Democrats are doing nothing.
Instead of cowering, the party needs to take hold of this issue – not for political gain, but for the sake of the republic. It is not in the best interests of the United States to have an imperial presidency. The framers created a system of checks and balances to prevent the abuses of power that are occurring today.