By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Spying and the law

President Bush talked about the NSA no-warrant domestic wiretaps in his radio address this morning. Here’s a chunk:

In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations.

Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks. This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security. Its purpose is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States, our friends and allies.

Yesterday the existence of this secret program was revealed in media reports, after being improperly provided to news organizations. As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk. Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country.

This is pretty scary, folks. Let’s start with his statement that his actions were “consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.” The most generous possible interpretation of this is that it might be true — but only if you accept his argument that the almost-declaration of war approved by Congress right after 9/11 allows him to do just about anything he pleases.

Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a Republican, has already called Bush’s NSA actions “inappropriate.” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, normally no friend of civil liberties and not especially partisan, said the obvious in pointing out that Bush may have broken the law.

Thus the president has taken the position that for the New York Times to have revealed the existence of a possibly illegal spying operation run out of the White House was in and of itself illegal.

We are on new territory today.

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Questions about the spying story


What did Congress know?


  1. Bill Baar

    Remember Bush was attacked after 911 for faulty intelligence, Surprising, get-tough comments this week by the Republican chairman of the independent commission investigating 9/11, suggesting the World Trade Center terrorist attacks could have been prevented had it not been for administration failures, mark a significant change in the committee’s public persona. The comments by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean could spell trouble for the Bush White House, which for the past two years has insisted it was powerless to stop the deadly al-Qaida strike. The commission, combing through millions of 9/11-related documents, has scheduled several public hearings for early next year that will put the White House’s claims to the test. Kean made his remarks during an interview with CBS News, broadcast Wednesday evening. “As you read the [commission’s] report, you’re going to have a pretty clear idea what wasn’t done and what should have been done,” he said. “This was not something that had to happen.”If the NSA intercepts Bush ordered weren’t legal, they should be, because there is no way to prevent terror attacks with out them. This isn’t a question of catching criminals and taking people to courts. This evidence won’t hold. It’s a question of preventing attacks.

  2. Anonymous

    Church destroyed the CIA. Three dozen orders from Bush rubber stamping wiretaps. Who do you think got tapped? Mr. and Mrs. Smith in Peoria? It’s a slipper slope I grant you but the same people slammed him for not knowing that two 727’s were going to fly into Manhattan four years ago. You cannot be a little bit pregnant.

  3. mike_b1

    You cannot be a little bit pregnant.Right. And society can’t be slightly democratic.If you are being watched, you aren’t free.

  4. Anonymous

    I actually think W is glad the Times decided on a Friday News dump. It gave him a twofer on his Sat. radio show. 1.He’s going to protect us whether the ninnies in Congress want him to, or not. 2. The press is anti-am. for alerting the evil do’ers that their phones,e-mail might be tapped.

  5. Provincial Congress

    No, I think the President has taken the position that revealing the existence of a legal spying operation was in and of itself illegal. Nothing novel about that.All sorts of legal arguments can be made about anything. The temporary opposition of two senators doesn’t declassify the information. Whatever journalistic privilege may cover the Times won’t protect the leaker.

  6. Bill Baar

    We can be watched and free. In fact freer. We have surviallance cameras all over now in Chicago. It helps free us from thugs.

  7. Neil

    I’m with provincial congress on this one. You may not agree with Bush’s stance, but it is internally consistent at least. If he believes, misguided or not (to be determined), that the classified operation was legal, and that its exposure damaged national security by reducing our ability to track terrorist threats, then it follows that he would consider said exposure illegal.And even if Bush’s actions turn out to have been illegal, justifying the leaker’s rationale after the fact, the opinion of the leaker about the legality of Bush’s actions is irrelevant in terms of the leaker’s own culpability against the charge of revealing classified information. If exposing this operation turns out to have been justified ethically, and helped Save the Republic from further power-grab by the Executive branch (again, TBD), the leaker is entitled to a Good Citizenship badge, but not a Get out of Jail Free card. If it ever comes to that.

  8. mike_b1

    “We can be watched and free. In fact freer. We have surviallance cameras all over now in Chicago. It helps free us from thugs.”Give us a break, Bill. There’s a huge difference between a camera at an intersection and someone tapping your phone without your knowledge (and illegally, I might add). Do you really feel any safer?

  9. Anonymous

    mike_b1, you do know that your employer reports your earnings to not only the state government, but also the federal one? That keeps tabs on your life a whole lot more than the Administration wire tapping a few hundred Muslims who quite possibly are terrorists or communicate with terrorists.And, yes, knowing that the government is doing a bunch of things to thwart Muslims in their attempts to kill me oddly does make me feel safer.I really hope Congress doesn’t kill this program, but I’m sure it will. After nixing the Patriot Act and passing the McCain Amendment we now have fewer tools at our disposal than before 9/11. Throw in idiotic court decisions and it looks even worse.But when al-Qaeda lands its next blow on American soil it will of course be Bush’s fault, for not connecting the dots that Congress barred him from spotting.

  10. mike_b1

    Funny…the same was said during during how many wars in the 1900s, when thousands of innocent US citizens were rounded up on the basis of their nationality? That, my friend, has been found over and again to be unconstitutional, not to mention unAmerican.Why do you think that whenever there’s a rally to protest the Second Amendment, the Jews are out in force against the protestors? “Those who forget the past…” ring a bell?You can dress up a pig, but it’s still a pig.Perhaps you haven’t been paying attention to all those FBI dossiers that were collected on literally thousands on Americans and without their knowledge, all under the guise of fighting Communism (this week in Time: “Andy Warhol, The Next Tsar?”). This is the same thing, except instead of calling it Communism the Republicans call it the War on Terrorism. Same pig, different dress.But hell, let’s just throw that all out. And when it’s you they arrest as part of one of these dragnets and charge with having kiddie porn on your PC, don’t come running to me for sympathy.

  11. mike_b1

    I’ll add one thing. You have a far greater chance of being killed by someone who looks, talks, acts and probably believes in the same things as you than you do by any terrorist.Less than 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists in the past 100 years.In 2004, according to the FBI, over 16,000 Americans were murdered. Same in 2003. And no, Congress did not just allocate $100 billion (and counting) to “remedy” that problem.That is what you should be worried about.

  12. lou

    Considering that the Defense Dept has been spying on anti-war protesters, including Quakers, Bush’s assurances do not assure me.

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