Doing the President's Dirty Work

Editorial

New York Times

February 17, 2006

Is there any aspect of President Bush's miserable record on intelligence that Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not willing to excuse and help to cover up?

For more than a year, Mr. Roberts has been dragging out an investigation into why Mr. Bush presented old, dubious and just plain wrong intelligence on Iraq as solid new proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was in league with Al Qaeda. It was supposed to start after the 2004 election, but Mr. Roberts was letting it die of neglect until the Democrats protested by forcing the Senate into an unusual closed session last November.

Now Mr. Roberts is trying to stop an investigation into Mr. Bush's decision to allow the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without getting the warrants required by a 27-year-old federal law enacted to stop that sort of abuse.

Mr. Roberts had promised to hold a committee vote yesterday on whether to investigate. But he canceled the vote, and then made two astonishing announcements. He said he was working with the White House on amending the 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to permit warrantless spying. And then he suggested that such a change would eliminate the need for an inquiry.

Stifling his own committee without even bothering to get the facts is outrageous. As the vice chairman of the panel, Senator John Rockefeller IV, pointed out, supervising intelligence gathering is in fact the purpose of the intelligence committee.

Mr. Rockefeller said the White House had not offered enough information to make an informed judgment on the program possible. It is withholding, for instance, such minor details as how the program works, how it is reviewed, how much and what kind of information is collected, and how the information is stored and used.

Mr. Roberts said the White House had agreed to provide more briefings to the Senate Intelligence Committee — hardly an enormous concession since it is already required to do so. And he said he and the White House were working out "a fix" for the law. That is the worst news. FISA was written to prevent the president from violating Americans' constitutional rights. It was amended after 9/11 to make it even easier for the administration to do legally what it is now doing.

FISA does not in any way prevent Mr. Bush from spying on Qaeda members or other terrorists. The last thing the nation needs is to amend the law to institutionalize the imperial powers Mr. Bush seized after 9/11.