Cleburne Times-Review Article for 5 February, 2006
“Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.”
--2 Peter 3:17
George W. Bush’s recent State of the Union Address demonstrated several defining characteristics of this President. First, he is still, five years into his term, and ten after winning his first office, a lousy public speaker. Probably the worst public speaker to become President since, well, his father. He still sounds pre-programmed at best and insincere at worst. He has only given one really good speech since being appointed President, his famous address from the top of the rubble of the World Trade Center, but nothing since has even come close. Second, Bush, to his credit, has consistently throughout his political career, resisted the temptation to bash immigrants, even back in the early-to-mid 1990’s, when Pete Wilson made it look like the wave of the future in the Republic Party. Maybe he has selfish reasons for doing so; after all, in Texas we know the real benefit of illegal aliens—keeping wages low. Even so, he deserves a pat on the back for sticking by his guns on this issue, even while his own party is cooking up ever more ludicrous schemes to stoke public paranoia over a wave of brown people infiltrating the country. Third, this President apparently wouldn’t know the truth if it bit him. His speech was so full of distortions, misstatements and outright falsehoods; it would take a dissertation to list and rebut them all. Putting aside the verbal chicanery about the economy and energy production and so forth, it was the President’s desperate obsession with using police state tactics and his incredible attempts to justify them that should give most Americans pause.
The President said, “We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to Al Qaeda operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So to prevent another attack -- based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute -- I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected Al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America.” Aside from the clever labeling of what is clearly and unequivocally an illegal warrantless wiretap directed at American citizens as “terrorist surveillance,” Bush ignores the findings of the 9-11 Commission, the Commission he opposed. Yes, the government knew about two of the hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, more than a year before the attacks, but it was bureaucratic incompetence, not an inability to receive a warrant to tap their phones, that prevented any action from being taken against them. In fact, the National Security Agency (NSA) successfully intercepted two messages warning of the attacks on September 10, 2001, but didn’t translate them from the Arabic to English until September 12, 2001. Too little, too late.
The “statute” the President referred to is the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress immediately after 9-11. However, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service concluded that the AUMF does not allow the President to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) that requires warrants from a special, secret FISA Court before electronic eavesdropping on American citizens. Even members of Bush’s own Justice Department such as Deputy Attorneys General James Comey and Jack Goldsmith argued that what the President’s handlers were proposing was illegal and unconstitutional. When, in 2002, Senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) proposed a bill that would have specifically lowered FISA standards, the Justice Department claimed such a bill might not “pass constitutional muster.”
The President said, “Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have…” However, the Clinton Administration only argued that physical searches, not electronic eavesdropping, were not subject to FISA, and indeed they weren’t, until October of 1994. Likewise, Executive Order 12139 issued by President Jimmy Carter specifically stated that warrantless wiretaps could not apply to “any communication to which a United States person is a party.” Presidents before Jimmy Carter were not bound by FISA, which was signed into law in 1978.
The President said, “... and federal courts have approved the use of that authority.” However, the Congressional Research Service referred to above specifically noted that “no court has ruled on the question of Congress’s authority to regulate the collection of foreign intelligence information,” referring to the President’s claim that his Constitutional authority allows him to ignore Congressional laws that he believes encroach on Executive Branch power.
The President said, “Appropriate members of Congress have been kept informed.” However, six of the seven Democratic members of Congress who were supposedly briefed on the warrantless wiretaps either objected at the time (but of course could not object publicly due to laws against disclosure of top-secret information) or weren’t told the true nature and extent of the program. Another Congressional Research Service report stated that the Bush Administration’s briefings on eavesdropping were so inadequate as to “appear to be inconsistent with the law.”
The President said, “The terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America.” Yet, current and former Bush Administration officials admit that the data mined through this program after 9-11 “led to dead ends or innocent Americans.”
So, it’s clear that wiretapping Americans without a warrant is unconstitutional, has no legal justification, would not have prevented 9-11, and isn’t keeping us any safer. So why is the President so obsessed with spying on us? Maybe it’s because he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, namely Nixon Era rejects like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, neither of whom seem to have lost their zeal for an Imperial Presidency. Or maybe he’s come to believe that it has become necessary to destroy the Constitution in order to save it.