While debate raged over limitations on personal freedoms versus security concerns in the months after the nation was shaken by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it is now alleged by government officials that President Bush secretly allowed restrictions on eavesdropping by domestic officials to be lifted.
The New York Times dropped this bombshell today:
Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.
As this story develops, it will be interesting to see if it has “legs” or if it is seen as just another piece of the historical puzzle stemming from the chaotic and woozy months following the worst attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor.
In any event, President Bush’s political advisors would likely do well to see this revelation – if proven to be factual and substantive – as a potential dagger in the heart of an administration that has just started to pick up positive momentum (particularly on the economy and the Iraqi elections) after months of unremittingly bad news and sagging poll numbers.
The timing of this story is ironic, too, as President Bush has only just announced that he will give in to the demands of Sen. John McCain and a wide and bipartisan swath of the American public and formally ban torture of US detainees, both domestically and abroad:
The agreement represented a rare policy reversal for Bush on his signature issue: his leadership in the battle against terrorism. It followed an unusual rebuke of the president from lawmakers in his own Republican Party, who largely fell in line behind McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and torture survivor with unassailable authority on the subject.
The White House had resisted a formal ban, arguing that existing law already outlawed torture. Administration officials had also expressed concern that a ban would undermine US personnel interrogating terror suspects, because detainees would fear them less.
Yet another area of concern, and one becoming all too familiar for a White House that is dealing with or monitoring a host of legal and ethical problems, is the question of whether or not any laws were broken during domestic eavesdropping operations. The New York Times piece goes on to find officials involved in the operation wondering “whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.”
The issue of trust has already become a crucial factor for an administration that is seen to have been misleading on pre-war intelligence, generally bungling in response to Hurricane Katrina, and ethically challenged with regard to the CIA leak case. With these new allegations of ethical and perhaps legal lapses in going after suspected terrorists, will administration critics be given more ammunition to blast away at the credibility of the president, or will the public be galvanized – as they were in the months following 9/11 – by a cowboy president who is fast and loose with the rules because that’s the only way to deal with the threats posed in an era where “our oceans can’t protect us.”
As for ethical troubles, the name that may eventually be remembered for many years to come – and associated with calamitous events on Capitol Hill – is one that is not even widely known yet: