In his news conference today, President Bush invoked the need for speed in the War on Terror as the reason he is illegally ordering the National Security Agency to conduct domestic surveillance without search warrants. Sounds like a compelling argument, right? In the fast-moving world of information age technology, we can't really afford to make our law enforcers take the time to go get a warrant, right?
It's true – Bush might have had a point, except for one tiny little detail he refused to discuss at his press conference: namely, the fact that current law is so lax that he is already permitted to get a search warrant 72 hours after surveillance is conducted. Put another way, the law currently allows Bush to order surveillance as fast as he possibly can, and allows surveillance operations to take place immediately. The only thing that is required is a court-issued warrant that can be ussed retroactively within 72 hours of when the operation started. And, as I"ve noted earlier, the special court that grants these warrants has only rejected 4 government requests in a quarter century, meaning getting a warrant is about as easy as it gets...that is, as long as you aren't trying to do something wholly outrageous and unrelated to the War on Terror.
And so we're back to the same question: why did the President order domestic surveillance operations without even asking retroactively for warrants? In his press conference, Bush tried to ramrod the entire issue into one of him working to defend America, and critics supposedly being weak on national security. But he frontally refused to answer the very simple question when a reporter put it to him:
QUESTION: Getting back to the domestic spying issue for a moment, according to FISA's own records, it's received nearly 19,000 requests for wiretaps or search warrants since 1979, rejected just five of them. It also operates in secret, so security shouldn't be a concern. And it can be applied retroactively. Given such a powerful tool of law enforcement is at your disposal, sir, why did you see fit to sidetrack that process?
BUSH: We used the process to monitor. But also, this is a different era, different war. It's a war where people are changing phone numbers and phone calls, and they're moving quick. And we've got to be able to detect and prevent. I keep saying that. But this is -- it requires quick action.
This is a form of lying that is worse than even the day-to-day lying that goes on in politics. This is premeditated lying – lying where everyone in the room knows a calculated lie is being told; lying where the facts invoked in the very question asked is patently ignored. How could he possibly cite the need for speed as the reason for refusing to get search warrants, when those warrants can be issued retroactively, and thus do not slow down operations in any way at all?
There really is only one explanation that a sane, rational person could come up with: The surveillance operations Bush is ordering are so outrageous, so unrelated to the War on Terror and such an unconstitutional breach of authority that he knows that even a court that has rejected just 4 warrant requests in 25 years will reject what he's doing. All you have to do is look at recent news reports about federal law enforcement and military assets being deployed against domestic anti-war and peace groups to know that this is well within what the Bush White House sees as acceptable behavior.
And it is clear, they aren't going to relent. As the Associated Press reports, "President Bush brushed aside criticism over his decision to spy on suspected terrorists without court warrants Monday and said he will keep it up 'for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill American citizens.'"
So even after public outcry, and even after a courageous reporter pointed out that the White House's "need for speed" answer doesn't hold water, the President stood up and said screw the law, screw the constitution, I'm going to do it anyway - and I'm not going to provide any legal justification for any of it.
This scandal has quickly ripped the veneer off this White House's use of "national security" in the post-9/11 world. It sees "national security" not as a priority in defending America, but as a slogan that justifies smarmy, used-to-getting-whatever-they-want politicians trampling the laws that are supposed to confine state power. This has nothing to do with the need for speed, or the need to fight terrorists – it has everything to do with an out-of-control, paranoid President believing he is above the laws that have governed this country for 200 years. And if America lets this stand – if we let the law be "brushed aside" - we set a dangerous precedent for future presidents to trample our Constitution.