Led by White House propaganda czar Karl Rove, the Bush Administration has launched an aggressive campaign claiming that the President’s authorization of massive ongoing electronic surveillance of American citizens is the only appropriate response to “a ruthless enemy.” Rove added that criticism of the President’s policy comes from those who don’t understand “the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment.”
The Founding Fathers anticipated debates such as the one stemming from George W. Bush’s illegal spying. Well acquainted with the excesses of mad monarchs named George and the excuses for tyranny peddled by their partisans, Benjamin Franklin warned, “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” James Madison understood how seductive the claims of national security could be, pointing out that wartime is “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”
Contemporary experts as diverse as Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and one of the foremost scholars of the conflict between the demands of national security and the Constitution, and Bruce Fein, a key player in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, have identified the Bush Administration’s wiretapping as a dangerous assault on our basic freedoms. Turley says, “What the President ordered in this case was a crime.” Fein adds that Bush is claiming “more power than King George III had at the time of the Revolution, in asserting the theory that anything the President thinks is helpful to fighting the war against terrorism he can do.”
So far, few prominent Democrats have had the courage to echo these legal scholars, and what is supposed to be the party of opposition has struggled to mount a coherent challenge to the Administration’s abuses. Former Vice President Al Gore’s January 16 address at Constitution Hall in Washington–where he declared that “the American values we hold most dear have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the Administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power”–was an exception. Gore called for Congress to take up its constitutionally mandated responsibility to serve as a check on the executive branch. That is, of course, easier said than done, both because of recalcitrance on the part of Republican leaders and reluctance on the part of many Democrats. When Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, took up Gore’s call, he was denied an official venue. When Conyers pressed ahead with unofficial hearings in the Capitol basement, at which both Turley and Fein testified, only a half-dozen House Democrats showed up.
We should not allow ourselves to fall into Rove’s trap and let this become a partisan squabble over national security. If we do, the President and his cronies on Capitol Hill are going to win. This is not fundamentally a debate about wiretapping or national security. It is about whether Presidents must obey the law, one of the bedrock principles of a free nation. As Elizabeth Holtzman recently observed in these pages, “A President, any President, who maintains that he is above the law–and repeatedly violates the law–thereby commits high crimes and misdemeanors.” Bush purposely violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, disregarding clear and specific statutory language and the Constitution. If he is not called to account for this grave illegality, the democratic standards to which this and future Presidents are held will have been dramatically lowered, and essential avenues for defending our liberties will have been blocked in precisely the manner that Ben Franklin, James Madison and the other wise Founders feared.