During Friday’s debate in the US Senate on various proposals to alter the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Connecticut’s sort-of-Democrat, sort-of-Independent, but always loyal to the Bush White House when it comes to debates on how to conduct the War on Terror senator angrily objected to the fact that the chamber was even discussing the difficult challenge of balancing the need to gather intelligence with the requirement that civil liberties be protected.

Joe Lieberman, who in an appearance last Sunday on ABC’s This Week referred to efforts to assure that any reform of FISA take into account the right of American citizens to be free from unwarranted government surveillance as “nonsense,” told the Senate on Friday that he regretted his colleagues were debating the issue.

In Lieberman’s view, congressional oversight of Bush-Cheney Administration moves to expand spying programs amounts to “fiddling” at a time when he just wants to “figure out how to pass a law to modernize this electronic surveillance capacity.” The Connecticut Senator’s no fiddler. He gruffly told the Senate that it must enact a plan, crafted largely by the White House to dramatically expand President Bush’s authority to eavesdrop on suspected foreign terrorists without court warrants.

Lieberman got most of what he wanted, in the form of a six-month expansion of presidential spying powers. That happened because Lieberman and a number of other members of the Democratic caucus voted to cede the authority of the legislative branch to that of the executive branch on a 60-28 division.

The House failed to do the same, however, so the debate that so frustrates the Connecticut Senator continues.

Lieberman’s impatience with the dialogue is rooted in the legislator’s dismay that matters usually discussed behind closed doors by shadowy men with the highest security clearances–and a few friendly senators –were being reviewed in an open and transparent matter.

Lieberman is a lawyer. Indeed, he is a former state Attorney General.

But he is anything but a Constitutional scholar, let alone a senator who takes seriously the oath he swore to “support and defend the Constitution”–a document that, it should be noted, includes an amendment reading: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Thankfully, another member of the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, feels himself duty-bound to respect the Constitution, and to preserve the rights it outlines.

After Lieberman lodged his complaints, Feingold addressed the Senate.

“Mr. President, let me just respond a bit to what the Senator from Connecticut just indicated.,” said Feingold, who was the only member of the chamber to vote against the draconian USA Patriot Act in the Fall of 2001, and who now proposes censuring President Bush for abusing civil liberties and Constitutional requirements in the years since then. “At times of war we don’t give up our responsibility in the U.S. Senate to review and make laws. The notion that we simply defer this to the Director of National Intelligence and whatever he says is an abdication of our duties especially in time of war.”

To Lieberman’s expression of frustration with the fact that intelligence initiatives, such as the Administration’s spying program, were being discussed in an open forum, Feingold replied, “The senator regrets we’re debating this and some of these very important matters that are generally kept secret are being discussed; I agree, but why aren’t they secret? Because the administration was conducting an illegal wiretapping program, and somebody inappropriately blew the lid on it. That wasn’t the doing of anybody in this body. That was due to the incompetence and inappropriate conduct of this administration in the first place.”

Feingold sees himself as a senator, as as such as a member of a branch of government that is co-equal with the executive branch. It was in that role that he objected to the decision of the chamber to give in to the president’s demands for more spying authority. “The day we start deferring to someone who’s not a member of this body … is a sad day for the US Senate,” said the Wisconsinite, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution. “We make the policy–not the executive branch.”

On that point, unfortunately, Feingold was wrong–at least temporarily.

As long as Lieberman can muster the needed Democratic votes to help the White House’s Republican allies give the president whatever authority he demands, senators do not make the policy. The White House does. So Friday was, indeed, a sad day–for the Senate, for the Constitution and for the Republic.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”