Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Bush's Snoopgate (Jonathan Alter)

This excellent and unusually forceful column by Jonathan Alter (to which I was tipped off by Brad DeLong) gets right to the point:
Dec. 19, 2005 - Finally we have a Washington scandal that goes beyond sex, corruption and political intrigue to big issues like security versus liberty and the reasonable bounds of presidential power. President Bush came out swinging on Snoopgate—he made it seem as if those who didn’t agree with him wanted to leave us vulnerable to Al Qaeda—but it will not work. We’re seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator, or in his own mind, no doubt, like Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. [It's hard to improve on this cogent formulation. --JW]
The problem was not that the disclosures would compromise national security, as Bush claimed at his press conference. [....] No, Bush was desperate to keep the Times from running this important story—which the paper had already inexplicably held for a year—because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker. He insists he had “legal authority derived from the Constitution and congressional resolution authorizing force.” But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law. [....]
What is especially perplexing about this story is that the 1978 law set up a special court to approve eavesdropping in hours, even minutes, if necessary. In fact, the law allows the government to eavesdrop on its own, then retroactively justify it to the court, essentially obtaining a warrant after the fact. Since 1979, the FISA court has approved tens of thousands of eavesdropping requests and rejected only four. There was no indication the existing system was slow—as the president seemed to claim in his press conference—or in any way required extraconstitutional action. [Instead, it's increasingly clear that this administration is committed to sweeping assertions of arbitrary executive privilege, and to contempt for the restraints of constitutional government and the rule of law, almost for their own sake ... somewhere between a matter of principle and a matter of habit. --JW]
This will all play out eventually in congressional committees and in the United States Supreme Court. If the Democrats regain control of Congress, there may even be articles of impeachment introduced. Similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974.
Will this happen? Frankly, I doubt it. Would it really be a good idea to get into the habit of impeaching Presidents all the time? I'm not so sure (even in this case). But I can't resist pointing out that this certainly looks a lot more like valid grounds for impeachment than, say, lying about semi-sex in the Oval Office.
Read the whole piece HERE.
--Jeff Weintraub