by Joe Auciello / June 2006 issue Socialist Action
“If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just as long as I am the dictator,” President George W. Bush told reporters after the 2000 election. Apparently, he wasn’t joking. Following the 9/11 attacks, President Bush secretly ordered the National Security Agency to wiretap—without a warrant—American citizens who made phone calls or sent e-mails overseas.
The president claims that his role as commander-in-chief allows him to authorize these wiretaps without the permission of any court. He claims, further, that a congressional resolution passed shortly after 9/11, which allows the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against the attackers, provides him with the authority to eavesdrop on Americans who communicate with people overseas.
President Bush’s argument is an ill-disguised and illegal power-grab that diminishes the civil rights of Americans. Bush’s actions to mandate domestic spying violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a 1978 law passed by Congress after it had been revealed that President Richard Nixon had improperly ordered the FBI to spy on U.S. citizens, especially those who Nixon considered his political enemies.
The fig-leaf FISA legislation was approved by Congress to give the impression that Americans’ civil liberties and democratic rights were henceforth to be protected. FISA essentially transferred the authority to grant emergency warrants to spy on U.S citizens from the president or other federal agencies to 11 judges appointed by the Supreme Court.
President Bush broke this law, believing that even its minimal constraints were too much for a president who wants to make executive power absolute. Furthermore, in a Dec. 17 radio address from the White House, he announced his intention to continue with his policy of unauthorized domestic spying.
The actual application of the FISA law has been nearly completely favorable to the executive branch of government. The New York Times (Dec. 23) reports: “It is not altogether evident why the government has viewed the FISA court as an obstacle. The annual statistical summary provided by the court shows that the panel has overwhelmingly approved the warrants sought by the Justice Department. From 1995 to 2004, the court received 10,617 warrant applications, according to figures compiled by the Federation of American Scientists. It turned down only four.”
What Bush does claim with far more justification is that his policy was carried out with the knowledge and support of key members of Congress, leaders of the Democratic Party. According to The New York Times (Dec. 23), “At least seven Democratic lawmakers are known to have been briefed about the program since its inception in 2001,” including top Democrats in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
Before authorizing wiretapping and monitoring conversation, Bush notified Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.). Following the public exposure and public outcry of the NSA’s actions, both Democrats have since tried to distance themselves from the president’s illegal policies.
Senator Reid, for instance, now calls for a congressional investigation into the president’s actions. Additionally, three Democratic senators have called for an end to the NSA operations pending a hearing in Congress.
The scope of this domestic spying program is not clear. White House officials have not provided information about the number of people being monitored, though initial reports of hundreds seems to fall far short of the actual number.
In addition to NSA spying, the “war on terror” has been used as the rationale for other federal and local agencies to spy on U.S. citizens. NBC News revealed that the Pentagon has been gathering intelligence on antiwar protesters, compiling a database of 1500 “suspicious incidents.”
Plainclothes police in New York City have been accused of impersonating antiwar protesters in order to monitor and secretly videotape the demonstrations, and, in at least one instance at the Republican National Convention, inciting a confrontation between protesters and police.
The FBI, in turn, according to documents released by the ACLU, is collecting information on groups and individuals ranging from animal rights and environmental activists to the Catholic Workers Movement, an antipoverty group that, according to the FBI, “advocates a communist distribution of resources.” Naturally enough, FBI spokesmen deny any wrongdoing and claim that their snooping is connected to investigations of suspected terrorists.
What is ignored in the government’s rationalizations is a fundamental principle of democracy: The government has no right to oversee and gather information on legal political activity,
even if it is activity aimed against the current administration.
The Bush agenda, which treats civil liberties as a casualty of war, is hardly limited to illegal use of the National Security Agency and other federal agencies. This administration attempts to use the media as an extension of government.
The New York Times, which finally broke the story (Dec. 16), did not publish their report for a year, at the urging of the White House. Even then, according to The Times, administration officials were allowed prepublication review of the article, and cuts were made at official request.
The telecommunications industry has been cooperating with federal agencies and providing the government with massive amounts of communications data, allowing the NSA “to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications” (The New York Times, Dec. 24).
In addition, in a number of significant ways, government policies and practices have eroded civil rights at home and abroad. The USA Patriot Act, initially approved with near unanimity by Congress and recently extended while Congress deliberates certain revisions, increases the scope of legal eavesdropping and allows government agents to obtain bank and hospital records and other personal documents, including information from businesses and libraries about book purchases, book lending, and internet use. The law enables the attorney general to authorize wiretaps before a judge has issued a warrant, if federal agents later present evidence in court.
Further, the Bush government has tried to undermine the long-standing international agreements by claiming that “war on terrorism” prisoners held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are enemy combatants and are not allowed the rights given them under the Geneva Conventions.
Bush has also claimed that his authority as commander-in-chief allows him to order the arrest and imprisonment of U.S. citizens without trial if they are suspected of having links to terrorists.
The Bush administration has also argued that the United Nations Convention Against Torture does not apply to U.S. interrogators who operated outside of this country. Only in December 2005 was the president forced to accept a law specifying that the torture convention standards applied outside of the United States, as well.
In addition, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies operate secret detention facilities overseas. The House has requested information abut these facilities and how they are run.
Even the presiding judge of the FISA court is asking the Justice Department to explain in a classified briefing why it has ignored the federal law that requires that court’s permission before wiretapping can be permitted in the United States. This public request followed the news that one federal judge had resigned from the 11-member surveillance court after President Bush insisted that he had the right to bypass it.
These policies on the part of the president show a clear pattern of domestic and foreign abuse of civil and human rights. The current revelations about illegal spying on U.S. citizens by the NSA need to be seen in the wider context of an on-going government assault on the freedom of its citizens.
The illegal practices of the Bush administration are hardly new in recent American history: “Domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association, and privacy.” This was the finding 30 years ago of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence headed by Sen. Frank Church, which investigated FBI and CIA practices of spying on U.S. citizens.
This Senate committee discovered that the federal government had assembled files on thousands of Americans who had broken no law but were “suspect” because they had protested the war in Vietnam or demonstrated for civil rights. Wiretaps had been placed on figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 while under federal surveillance) and Malcolm X; dissident groups had been infiltrated, disrupted, and provoked by agents provocateurs.
The Bush administration would return the United States back to the days when President Richard Nixon was able to say, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Nixon was wrong then, and Bush is wrong today.
The battle for democratic rights in the U.S. is an on-going struggle, a struggle too important to be left to the politicians of either party. Despite outbursts of bold rhetoric, especially by some prominent Democrats, Congress has no stomach for the fight and will act only when it is forced to do so.
The kind of popular protest and public outcry that won victories for democratic rights in the past is needed again today. Americans not only have the right to know the truth about the Bush administration’s spy campaign, they have the right and the power to stop it.