U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) denounced President Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism yesterday through the lens of his 50-plus year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sarah Royce
Dingell

Dingell, now 79, was first elected to Congress in 1955.

Dingell spoke in Political Science Prof. Larry Greene’s class yesterday afternoon as part of a speaker series for Greene’s political science classes, “Constitutional Law and Politics” and “Terrorism, War, and Due Process.”

Dingell said Bush is both someone he likes on a personal level and is “the most intellectually incurious person” he has ever met.

Dingell repeatedly alluded to the Bush administration’s lack of respect for separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, especially compared with past administrations.

“This administration seems to have an active contempt for Congress,” Dingell said. “They just don’t tell us the truth.”

He used the current debate over the formerly secret National Security Agency domestic surveillance program as an example of how the administration circumvents Congress.. The program, which numerous legislators have called illegal, authorizes the NSA to wiretap suspected terrorists inside the United States without obtaining a warrant as long as they are speaking to someone overseas believed to be linked to al-Qaida.

Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have been consistent in their position that the president already has the authority pursuant to his constitutional role as commander in chief and the resolution after Sept. 11 that authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against al-Qaida.”

The administration has repeatedly said it does not need legislative approval, and will therefore not seek it.

“The terrorist surveillance program is necessary. It is lawful and it respects the civil liberties we all cherish. . To end the program now would be to afford our enemy dangerous and potential deadly new room for operation within our own borders,” Gonzales said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Feb. 6.

Dingell, however, is troubled by Bush’s apparent belief that he is above the law.

“This is not a fight between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “It is a fight between those who believe in liberties and rights, and those who want to shower upon the president powers he does not have.”

Dingell said if the president did come to Congress for approval of the wiretapping program, he would most likely encounter bipartisan support.

Most criticism of the surveillance program is based on concerns about civil liberties. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted during the last week of January shows that 64 percent of Americans are either “very” or “somewhat” concerned and 35 percent are either “not very” or “not at all” concerned about “losing some of (their) civil liberties as a result of the measures enacted by the Bush administration.”

Dingell said it is difficult to effectively balance national security and civil liberties, saying each case must be evaluated individually and with the utmost scrutiny.

“Protecting civil liberties is one of the most important things we do,” he said.

The domestic surveillance dispute is part of a broader debate regarding overlapping foreign policy mandates in the Constitution, which vests military powers in both the Executive and Legislative branches. Article I, section 8, for example, gives Congress the exclusive ability to officially declare war and to raise and support the army. Article II, section 2, however, mandates that the president is the commander in chief of the Army and Navy.

Throughout history, Bush and many of his predecessors have used the commander in chief clause to justify military conflict without an official declaration of war – such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq.

Although numerous lawsuits have challenged these actions, courts have consistently sided with the office of the president, in effect nullifying Congress’s power to declare war, Greene said.

“(Congress) can still decide they don’t want to finance the war,” Greene said. He used the example of the conflict in Bosnia, where Congress structured military funding in a way that effectively precluded ground troops.

Responding to an audience question about his favorite president, Dingell commented on the 12 presidents with whom he’s had personal contact, beginning with his two heroes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Dingell used similar language to describe Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, calling them some of the most decent and caring people he has ever met.

He praised John F. Kennedy’s charm and Lyndon Johnson’s “completion of the New Deal,” while asserting that Richard Nixon was a better president than people give him credit for, regardless of his moral failures.

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