Monday, January 30, 2006
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
In a public-relations blitz last week, President Bush and top officials in his administration suggested the country faces a choice between accepting his warrantless-surveillance program or ignoring terrorists' telephone calls.
Under a 1978 law, the government can monitor international communications between people in the United States and suspected terrorists as long as it obtains a warrant from a secret court. The court has been quite willing to issue warrants, rejecting just four of more than 10,000 applications from 1995 to 2004. And the law allows the government to wait up to 72 hours after it begins spying before getting court approval.
The Bush administration has argued the president's authority as commander in chief, and a 2001 congressional resolution authorizing him to use force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, give him the power to carry out surveillance involving suspected terrorists without warrants.
Not just Democrats have questioned this legal justification. So has the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and several Republican senators, including Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter. Their concern is well taken. There is enormous potential for abuse in unchecked government power. That's why the Founding Fathers established a system with rigorous checks and balances.
The Bush administration has said the process of obtaining warrants for terrorist surveillance is too cumbersome. If so, rather than skirt the law, the president needs to persuade Congress to change it.