Do You Know What They Know?

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

February 6, 2006

Has the National Security Agency referred your name to the F.B.I. as a result of information it picked up from its illegal domestic eavesdropping program?

You don't know, do you? And the Bush administration, which has linked its mania for secrecy with its fetish for collecting data on Americans, is not saying.

The big problem related to this program, as far as the administration is concerned, is not its metastasizing threat to constitutional government, the rule of law, the privacy of innocent Americans, the venerable system of checks and balances, and the American way of life as we've known it.

No, the big problem for Bush & Co. the thing that makes the president and his apologists apoplectic is the mere fact that this domestic spying program has come to light. Investigations are under way to determine who might have leaked information about the supersecret program to The New York Times, which disclosed its existence, and others.

This is not a time for Congress or the media to bow before the intimidation tactics of a bullying administration. This is a time to heed the words of a federal judge named Damon Keith, who reminded us back in 2002 that "democracies die behind closed doors."

The attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is scheduled to testify about the N.S.A. program today at a public hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here are some of the questions that need to be asked:

Who is being spied upon, and why?

How many Americans here in the United States or others who were lawfully in the country have had their phone conversations or e-mails intercepted without a warrant?

Who determines what calls or e-mails are to be monitored in the U.S. without warrants, and what are their guidelines?

How many of those who were spied upon were found to have been involved in terror-related activities? How many were referred to the F.B.I. or other agencies for further investigation?

Of those who were referred, how many were cleared of wrongdoing?

What kind of information is being collected about people who are spied upon without warrants but are not referred to law enforcement agencies? How is that data being used, and how is it stored?

Is the government collecting information about the political views of the people who are being spied upon? With whom is that information being shared?

What has been the nature and the extent of the objections from people inside the government to the warrantless spying?

Until recently, no one was above the law in the U.S., not even the president. Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment and run out of town for thumbing his nose at the Constitution. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his sex life.

The Bush administration, by exploiting the very real fear of terrorism, and with the connivance of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, has run roughshod over constitutional guarantees that had long been taken for granted. The prohibition against cruel and inhuman punishment? Habeas corpus? The right to face one's accuser? When it suits the Bush crowd, such protections are simply ignored.

The president would have you believe that the warrantless N.S.A. spy program is a very limited operation, narrowly focused on international communications involving "people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations."

If that were true, there would be no reason not to get a warrant from the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The most logical reason for not getting a warrant is that the president's intelligence acolytes, who behave as though they graduated from the Laurel and Hardy school of data mining, have not been able to demonstrate that the people being spied upon are connected to Al Qaeda or any other terror organization.

The National Security Agency sent so much useless information to the F.B.I. in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks that agents began to joke that the tips would result in more "calls to Pizza Hut." The Times reported that thousands of tips a month came pouring in, virtually all of them leading to dead ends or innocent Americans.

The American public needs to know what's really going on with this spy program. "Liberty," said John Adams, "cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people."