Last month, President Bush placed himself at odds with the American people when he admitted toordering domestic wiretapping without obtaining a warrant. Although Bush believes his program is necessary to protect Americans, such wiretappings without warrants are considered a felony under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Bush has repeatedly put himself above the law by lying to and spying on the American people, using his “war on terror” as justification. His refusal to follow the rule of law should invoke Congress to take action. Whether forced or by its own initiative, the Bush administration must immediately cease its illegal domestic surveillance program and take full responsibility its actions.
Congress passed FISA in 1978 in the wake of the Watergate scandal to prevent future abuses of domestic surveillance. Not that unlike Bush’s rationalization, Nixon said the Watergate wiretaps were set up to protect national security. Congress recognized this move as a malignant infringement of privacy and abuse of power by the executive branch. Thus, FISA was created and enacted to ensure no future president could place himself above the law and zealously abuse the powers granted to him by his office.
Bush has attempted to justify his abuses of power by claiming there was no time to obtain the warrants required by FISA, an odd explanation considering the law allows spying for up to 72 hours without a warrant. After that time, the attorney general must get a judge to sign off on the wiretappings. It is unclear how exactly Bush sees FISA as a nuisance to national security. As of 2004, over 10,000 wiretappings have been approved under FISA. Only four have been denied.
By violating FISA, Bush has shown a blatant disregard for rule of law and disrupted the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Congress should hold hearings to investigate the extent of these illegal wiretaps and stand up against the power grab that challenges its own powers. Facing skepticism even within the Republican Party, the Bush administration should fully cooperate in order to salvage what remains of its legitimacy. It is true that past presidents have conducted similar unwarranted wiretappings and spying, but Congress should set precedent now, or else a future administration could use Bush’s spying to further tip the scales in its own favor. Just because Bush says his domestic spying program is legal and justified does not make it so.
If the president can disregard Congress’s laws as he sees fit, there is little to stop him from ignoring whatever other laws he deems necessary. This is not how democracy works.
The system of checks and balances does not disappear during wartime – and certainly not during an indefinite period of “war” against an abstract noun. The executive branch does not have the right to override Congress, overlook the rule of law or ignore the Bill of Rights. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress should work together to investigate the executive branch’s misdoings and hold the Bush administration fully accountable for its illegal actions.