Considering his track record, I'm not too shocked to hear that President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on people inside the United States. I'm only disturbed by his reluctance to tell us about it.
Months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the President ordered the NSA to monitor international telephone calls and e-mails of perhaps thousands of people inside the United States without warrants in order to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the New York Times reported.
That's not a dumb thing to do, although it could be illegal. The NSA, which is so secret that insiders have long said its initials really stand for "no such agency," has a specific mission to spy on communications abroad, not here at home.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a judge presiding over a secret court that oversees intelligence matters, among others, raised so many constitutional concerns about the agency's conducting surveillance without warrants that the administration suspended the operation last year, the Times quoted officials as saying.
So, why didn't we hear about it sooner? The Times says it delayed publication of the report for a year because the White House said it could jeopardize continuing investigations. The newspaper also said it continues to withhold information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists.
That sounds like a sensible move, in light of national security concerns. I wish the administration was just as respectful of the public's right to know that their government is spying on them without bothering to get a warrant from a judge.
The story appropriately broke during Senate debate over renewal of the USA Patriot Act, which has greatly expanded the government's ability to search and wiretap in the wake of 9/11. Still, the administration would not discuss the specifics of the article, other than to assure us, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did, that Bush has "acted lawfully in every step that he has taken." Right. And we don't torture, either.
Credibility-wise, this story broke at an awkward time for the administration. Rice's European tour was marred by the Washington Post's disclosure that the United States has been spiriting Al Qaeda suspects to secret European prisons for, as the administration puts it, "aggressive" questions.
And only a day or so before the NSA disclosures, Bush was backed into agreeing to a blanket U.S. ban on torture, ceding the moral high ground to his long-time rival Sen. John McCain, who knows about torture from first-hand experience as a POW in Vietnam. Bush had threatened to use his presidential veto for the first time to block the Arizona Republican's measures. Vice President Cheney lobbied Republicans to give U.S. intelligence agents immunity, causing Democrats to brand him the "Vice-President for Torture."
Those are the sort of aggressive expansions of government power over human rights for which the administration has become notorious since 9/11. The administration has pushed for expansions of government power and left it to the courts to push it back.
Sometimes such moves are necessary. Others times not. Either way, the public needs to hold government accountable, no matter what party is in power, because once you give up your rights, it is very hard to get them back.
It's not hard for me to understand, looking back at the panic-stricken months following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, why the Bush administration would want the NSA to move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to the United States.
Nor is it hard to believe that their efforts have helped disrupt terrorist plots and prevent attacks inside the United States, as the administration says they have. What I find disturbing is the administration's reluctance to let the rest of us know that they have radically shifted the long-standing relationship between our government intelligence agencies.
In light of past abuses by the FBI, CIA and other agencies, Congress installed safeguards to make the government more accountable to the public and their elected representatives. In this case, it is questionable that even Congress was as well-informed as it should have been.
Was the White House too arrogant for its own good? Have we, the public, as the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan used to say, defined the administration's deviancy down? The media can probe, but Congress has the subpoena power that can demand answers to the big questions that need to be asked. They should use it.