Should the White House continue ordering selected wiretaps without warrants? - Full Speed Ahead After 9/11, Bush and Cheney pressed for more power and got it


Mon Jan 2, 2006 21:48

Should the White House continue ordering selected wiretaps without warrants?

* 28451 responses Yes 13% No 86% I don't know 1%


Full Speed Ahead After 9/11, Bush and Cheney pressed for more power and got it. Now, predictably, the questions begin. Behind the NSA spying furor.


By Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman Newsweek

Jan. 9, 2006 issue - The talk at the White House in the days and weeks after 9/11 was all about suitcase nukes and germ warfare and surprise decapitation strikes. Every morning, as they crossed West Executive Drive on their way to work in the West Wing, Bush administration staffers recall seeing a plain white truck with a galvanized metal chimney. Sensors sniffing for pathogens or radioactivity, they guessed, though they couldn't be sure. Like just about everything else at that spooky time, the purpose of the truck was a secret.

Such chilling sights are not likely to inspire thoughtful ruminations about the separation of powers or the true meaning of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The message to White House lawyers from their commander in chief, recalls one who was deeply involved at the time, was clear enough: find a way to exercise the full panoply of powers granted the president by Congress and the Constitution. If that meant pushing the boundaries of the law, so be it. The Bush administration did not throw away the Bill of Rights in the months and years that followed; indeed, NEWSWEEK has learned, ferocious behind-the-scenes infighting stalled for a time the administration's ambitious program of electronic spying on U.S. citizens at home and abroad.

On one day in the spring of 2004, White House chief of staff Andy Card and the then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales made a bedside visit to John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, who was stricken with a rare and painful pancreatic disease, to try—without success—to get him to reverse his deputy, Acting Attorney General James Comey, who was balking at the warrantless eavesdropping. Miffed that Comey, a straitlaced, by-the-book former U.S. attorney from New York, was not a "team player" on this and other issues, President George W. Bush dubbed him with a derisive nickname, "Cuomo," after Mario Cuomo, the New York governor who vacillated over running for president in the 1980s. (The White House denies this; Comey declined to comment.)

In a perfect democracy trying to strike a balance between civil liberties and national security, there would be reasoned, open debate between representatives of the different branches of government. But human nature and politics rarely work in neat and orderly ways. In moments of crisis, presidents, if they believe in executive power (and most inevitably do), will do almost anything to protect the country. Only after the crisis ebbs does the debate begin over the proper means and ends, and by then the people and their representatives are often shocked to find what the president has done in the name of protecting them. More than four years after September 11, America finds itself debating some of the oldest issues in our history: how to balance liberty and security, how much power we should cede to the White House and whether what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. dubbed "The Imperial Presidency" amid Watergate is a good thing, a bad thing or something in between. That the war on terror is unconventional and seemingly endless adds to the difficulty and raises the stakes.

After 9/11, President Bush and his top advisers faced, they believed, a mortal yet invisible enemy. The mightiest armed forces in the world were not effective against such a shadowy foe. Nor were human spies much help. Movies and novels notwithstanding, the CIA had rarely (if ever) penetrated a terrorist cell. America's one true weapon was technology. Spy satellites and the massive computers of the National Security Agency (so secret it was nicknamed "No Such Agency") were able to pluck telephone and e-mail conversations out of the air and ether. The NSA could cock a giant ear to America's enemies—and, ideally, overhear their plots.

As communications were increasingly digitized and encrypted, intelligence experts sometimes warned that the NSA was going deaf. Rare public statements by top NSA officials seemed to give credence to that worry. It appears, however, that the NSA was secretly working on sophisticated "data mining," computer programs that could sift through vast amounts of information searching for patterns and connections—in effect, "Googling" America's enemies. After 9/11, the government was criticized for not "connecting the dots," linking and following up on clues, like phone calls from hijackers hiding in the United States to their terror masters abroad. With the NSA's computers fully cranked up, Bush administration officials hoped, they would find other terrorist "sleeper cells" before they could strike again.




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