America is unique among nations because it was founded not on an ethnic or national identity but on a set of principles. Our country has become prosperous and powerful due in part to our system of checks and balances, limited government and individual rights. The Founding Fathers knew something that we seem to have forgotten: The threat of the unlimited power of an American tyrant is as deadly as the threats from foreign enemies from which such power claims to protect us. Should a nation of rebels accept a new King George if he promises to protect them? When did it become acceptable to argue that man can wield absolute power without being absolutely corrupted?
President Bush secretly authorized NSA wiretapping of American citizens in direct contradiction to a specific law and to the Fourth Amendment. His administration pressured The New York Times to not release the story for a year because of supposed national security concerns. The president insists he made no mistake – rather, the FISA court law needs to be amended so that he may spy as he pleases. The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee recently blocked a planned investigation of the NSA domestic spying program. Legislation is now being considered to “fix” a law that was never broken, except by the president himself.
The president acted illegally and should be held accountable. If he had a problem with the law – which is specifically built to allow eavesdropping during times of national crisis – he could have gone to Congress and asked for it to be changed. Even if domestic spying were absolutely necessary to prevent attacks, it would be unconstitutional to conduct it without oversight by Congress or the courts. If the government operates in secrecy, we can’t know if it’s using national security as an excuse to hide political incompetence and manipulation. Given this administration’s record, “just trust us” is just not good enough.
There have been genuine tensions between liberty and security during every war our nation has fought. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. The Sedition Act of 1918 essentially banned speech opposing World War I. In these and other cases, however, Congress and the courts opposed an overreach by the executive, and the laws were repealed after the crises had passed. This ability to self-correct through open discussion is vital to democracy. The Bush administration has actively stalled debate through fear-mongering and propaganda. Scarcely a speech goes by without accusations that honest opponents are “aiding and abetting the enemy” or without emotional appeals to the memory of Sept. 11 coupled with threats of a new attack.
Stifling debate and overriding the Constitution is an attack on democracy itself. The FISA law regulating eavesdropping was enacted in response to President Nixon’s wiretapping of Democrats, civil rights advocates and antiwar activists. Is Bush so virtuous that we believe he would never commit such abuses? Do we really have so little faith in the system of checks and balances which carried us through two World Wars and the sustained threat of thermonuclear Armageddon that we would now cast it aside in fear of a ragtag band of religious fanatics?
In Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, he addressed the same points before a far weaker nation: “I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough … I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. … Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?” Bush is no angel. And it is the responsibility of both Congress and the American people to ensure that neither he, nor anyone else, will ever become king.