Illegal and Inept

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

February 9, 2006

While testifying about the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was asked to explain how the program had been damaged by the disclosure of its existence in the press.

Senator Joseph Biden suggested that Al Qaeda operatives have most likely been aware for some time that the government is trying to intercept their phone calls.

Mr. Gonzales agreed. "You would assume that the enemy is presuming that we are engaged in some kind of surveillance," he said. "But if they're not reminded about it all the time in newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget."

Senator Biden managed to laugh. Probably to keep from crying. This was the attorney general of the United States speaking, yet another straight man for an administration that has raised governing to new heights of witlessness. Watching the Bush administration in action would be hilarious, if its ineptitude and brutally misguided policies didn't end so often in needless suffering and sorrow.

The public should be aware of two important points about the president's domestic spying program: it's illegal, and it's not catching terrorists.

If the program were legal, there is no chance so many Republicans would be upset about it. While questioning Mr. Gonzales at Monday's Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, assailed both of the rationales used by the administration to justify the program.

Referring to the administration's repeated insistence that the Congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Al Qaeda gave the president the power to bypass restrictions on domestic surveillance imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Senator Graham said:

"I'll be the first to say, when I voted for it, I never envisioned that I was giving to this president or any other president the ability to go around FISA carte blanche."

Senator Graham then addressed the argument that the president has the inherent power under the Constitution to authorize the warrantless wiretapping. Such a view, said Senator Graham, would undermine the principle of checks and balances. "Taken to its logical conclusion," he said, "it concerns me that it could basically neuter the Congress and weaken the courts."

Moments later, he added, "And when the nation's at war, I would argue, Mr. Attorney General, you need checks and balances more than ever."

Other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who expressed skepticism or voiced serious doubts about the program included Mike DeWine and Sam Brownback, and the chairman, Arlen Specter. "You think you're right," Senator Specter told Mr. Gonzales. "But there are a lot of people who think you're wrong."

Apart from the legal issues, it's increasingly clear that the president's program is contributing little if anything to the effort to protect Americans from Qaeda-type terrorism.

Senator Biden asked Mr. Gonzales whether the program had achieved any results. Mr. Gonzales said it had helped identify "would-be terrorists here in the United States."

"Have we arrested those people?" asked Mr. Biden. "Have we arrested the people we've identified as terrorists in the United States?"

The attorney general's reply left people shaking their heads and rubbing their eyes. "When we can use our law enforcement tools to go after the bad guys," he said, "we do that."

Senator Biden tried to push the issue, but Mr. Gonzales would not elaborate. Mr. Biden finally said: "Well, I hope we arrested them if you identified them. I mean, it kind of worries me because you all talk about how you identify these people, and I've not heard anything about anybody being arrested."

A clue to Mr. Gonzales's reluctance to discuss the achievements of the president's domestic spying program could be found on the front page of The Washington Post on Sunday. A long article about the program began as follows:

"Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use."

To laugh or to cry that is the question as we contemplate three more years of this theater of the absurd known as the Bush administration.