Domestic spying controversy lingers

WASHINGTON: Bush administration officials, including vice president Dick Cheney, have launched a vigorous defense of the President’s decision to order surveillance of thousands of American citizens over the past four years, arguing that such actions are vital in the US government’s war on terrorism.

WASHINGTON: Bush administration officials, including vice president Dick Cheney, have launched a vigorous defense of the President’s decision to order surveillance of thousands of American citizens over the past four years, arguing that such actions are vital in the US government’s war on terrorism.

Since the New York Times reported last month that the National Security Agency has been wiretapping and eavesdropping on American citizens, President Bush has come under continuous attack for authorizing possible illegal activity.

"I think the White House has had a better political than legal strategy in response to the disclosure," said Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at George Washington University. "Legally, the President's admissions are quite surprising. This is the first time that I know of that a president has admitted to acts that would constitute federal crimes and indeed impeachable offenses. Usually, presidents are more cagey when faced with serious allegations of criminal conduct."

Administration officials have argued that the President has the power to conduct warrantless surveillance under the constitution's war powers provision. They also have maintained that Congress gave Bush the power to conduct such a secret program when it authorized military action in a resolution adopted within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I don't think [the Bush administration has] done a good job explaining to the American people because I don't think they can," said Morton Halperin, director of US advocacy for the Open Society Institute and a former National Security Council official in the Clinton and Nixon administrations. "This is clearly illegal. It violates the statute. There is no authority to do it."

But Turley noted that the White House successfully coordinated the appearance of various lawyers and former administration officials including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, Republican commentator William – who insisted President Bush had the authority to order the NSA surveillance without going through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

"They quickly got out to these individuals information to feed into the media," he explained. "Much of the public case made for the President is frankly meritless, but it plays well."

The Times said it learned about the surveillance in 2004 but waited a year before publishing the story.

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