Who Will Stand Up for the Constitution?

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

January 19, 2006

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."-BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

"Those who expect to reap the blessing of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."
-THOMAS PAINE

Al Gore offered a civics lesson this week for anyone willing to listen. Speaking at Constitution Hall in Washington, the former vice president said:

"As we begin this new year, the executive branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses."

Americans do not seem especially concerned about this incredible affront to the integrity of the government and the rule of law. The attitude of a slender majority seems to be that if the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney see fit to dismantle the heretofore sacred system of checks and balances, so be it.

A Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed that 51 percent of respondents felt that in the fight against terror, it's fine for the government to engage in the warrantless wiretapping of telephone calls and e-mail. In other words, it's fine for the president to break the law.

I find it peculiar that an awful lot of Americans who would be outraged by the burning of the American flag are positively sanguine about the trampling of the Constitution.

One of the ugliest aspects of the Bush administration is the outright deceit that is such a major aspect of its modus operandi. Tens of thousands of men, women and children are tragically dead because of the war in Iraq, which was launched from a monstrous superstructure of deceit. Why wouldn't we expect the administration to deceive the public about the illegal spying of the National Security Agency?

As Mr. Gore noted, "During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the president went out of his way to reassure the American people on more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is required for any government spying on American citizens and that, of course, these constitutional safeguards were still in place."

The president was either lying, or -- I don't know what.

So why is the president illegally spying on Americans when the administration can so easily comply with the law by secretly getting warrants from the terminally compliant court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act?

Clues can be found in a couple of lawsuits seeking to stop the illegal spying that were filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights. In addition to arguing that the domestic spying program should be shut down because it is illegal, both groups express the fear that the National Security Agency has been spying on individuals who have had nothing whatever to do with terrorism.

That fear was bolstered this week by an article in The Times that said the N.S.A. had all but overwhelmed the F.B.I. with raw tips, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, names - all manner of information - in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Hundreds of F.B.I. agents were required to check out thousands of N.S.A. tips a month.

Citing interviews with current and former officials, the article said that virtually all of the tips "led to dead ends or innocent Americans."

Warrants for domestic eavesdropping were not only easily available, but could even be obtained retroactively. Nevertheless, as Anthony Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., remarked yesterday, "The president chose to completely disregard the rules of the road."

"That means," said Mr. Romero, "that the N.S.A. has been unleashed in a much broader way on Americans."

In a separate interview yesterday, Bill Goodman, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, spelled out his belief that the government was using the cover of terror investigations to spy on the private conversations of law-abiding individuals.

"I think they are engaging in surveillance that they don't want even the FISA judges to see. They don't want them looking over their shoulders and seeing that they are doing things like listening in on attorney-client conversations, listening in on journalists talking to their sources, engaging in the kind of Big Brother tactics that will turn this society from a free one into an authoritarian one."