Time for Facts, Not Resolutions

Editorial

New York Times

March 17, 2006

We understand the frustration that led Senator Russell Feingold to introduce a measure that would censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless spying on Americans. It's galling to watch from the outside as the Republicans and most Democrats refuse time and again to hold Mr. Bush accountable for the lawlessness and incompetence of his administration. Actually sitting among that cowardly crew must be maddening.

Still, the censure proposal is a bad idea. Members of Congress don't need to take extraordinary measures like that now. They need to fulfill their sworn duty to investigate the executive branch's misdeeds and failings. Talk about censure will only distract the public from the failure of their elected representatives to earn their paychecks.

We'd be applauding Mr. Feingold if he'd proposed creating a bipartisan panel to determine whether the domestic spying operation that Mr. Bush has acknowledged violates the 1978 surveillance law, as it certainly seems to do. The Senate should also force the disclosure of any other spying Mr. Bush is conducting outside the law. (Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has strongly hinted that is happening.)

The Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees should do this, but we can't expect a real effort from Senator Pat Roberts, the Intelligence Committee chairman, or Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. They're too busy trying to give legal cover to the president's trampling on the law and the Constitution.

When the Republicans try to block an investigation, as they surely will, Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, should not be afraid to highlight that fact by shutting down the Senate's public business, as he did last year. This time, though, Mr. Reid needs to follow up. The first time Mr. Reid forced the Senate into a closed session, Mr. Roberts said he would keep his promise about an investigation into the hyping of intelligence on Iraq. But Mr. Roberts continues to sit on that report.

The nation needs to know a great deal more about the domestic spying. How many people's calls and e-mail were tapped? How were they chosen? Was Mr. Bush planning to do this until the war on terror ended — that is, forever? The public should be asking why members of Congress are afraid to make those important and legitimate queries.

With so much still unknown about the domestic spying, the censure resolution merely allows the Republicans to change the subject to fairy tales about Democratic leaders' trying to impeach Mr. Bush. They are also painting criticism of Mr. Bush as unpatriotic. That's tedious nonsense, but watching Mr. Feingold's Democratic colleagues run for cover shows how effective it is.