Saturday, February 04, 2006


Thwarting scrutiny

The Bush administration, which apparently believes that secrecy is its best defense against charges of abuses and incompetence, is at it again.

This time, the Justice Department is refusing to share its classified legal opinions on President Bush's domestic surveillance program with the Senate committee that is to begin hearings Monday.

The administration has laid out a public legal defense, but its strategy has rested chiefly on the deceptive ploy of portraying the spying program as "terrorist surveillance." It thus miscasts its actions as an urgent response to immediate danger, with little supporting evidence, and it dodges concerns that telephone conversations and e-mail of many non-terrorists have been monitored.

Also, by keeping internal documents under wraps, administration officials can hide the serious conflicts within the Justice Department in 2004 over the program's legality.

The Senate Judiciary Committee shouldn't let them get away with it.

The papers in question are legal memorandums, not reports on sensitive field operations. They are critical in helping the Senate and the public understand why the administration felt it could ignore explicit requirements in federal law for warrants, and why the law's procedures for obtaining warrants from a secret court (after the fact, if necessary) were inadequate.

And they should shed light on whether the administration sees the President's powers in national security matters as virtually unlimited.

There are, of course, legitimate arguments for some degree of privileged communications within the executive branch. But there are also compelling needs for accountability and transparency.

And it is significant that the dispute over the spying documents hardly stands alone. The administration is currently embroiled in quarrels with Congress over its refusal to release documents related to its response to Hurricane Katrina and on White House dealings with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Moreover, there has been a series of previous battles over withheld White House records, including those regarding pre-9/11 warnings of possible attacks by al-Qaida and Vice President Dick Cheney's secret energy task force.

This administration's attitude seems to be: We'll do as we please without any interference from you.

That is an affront to Congress, to the principle of balance of power and to the American people. It must be vigorously challenged.

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