Kicking off the Senate hearings into the legality of President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program -- oh, sorry, "terrorist surveillance program" -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to discuss details of the program, insisting that "an open discussion of the operational details of this program would put the lives of Americans at risk."
But not half as much as an open discussion of the program would put the GOP's '06 chances at risk.
Illegal warrantless wiretapping -- and the administration's unrelenting mendacity about it -- is not only wrong on principle but a perfect wedge issue for Democrats, a chance to split off conservatives and independents disgusted with the White House's contemptuous disregard for the rule of law and for the truth. But only if Democrats correctly frame the issue.
This isn't about being against eavesdropping or, as Karl Rove would like you to believe, not having the will to ferret out al-Qaeda members and "affiliates."
It's about the President of the United States (and his minions) aggressively and willfully breaking the law -- and lying about it. Repeatedly.
First, the law breaking. Arguing that Bush has "inherent constitutional authority" to order warantless wiretaps or that Congress's post-9/11 "use of force" resolution gave the president a blank check when it came to domestic spying is simply contradicted by the facts. Even Arlen Specter has called the White House's defense of the spy program "very strained and unrealistic." The Constitution, the law creating the FISA court, and Supreme Court precedent all make it clear: Bush is breaking the law -- no matter how many times Gonzales insists that Gen. Washington intercepted letters between British operatives or that Lincoln okayed tapping into telegraph messages during the Civil War.
And the Democrats need to keep hammering that point home. Again and again and again.
They also need to cut through -- again and again -- the fog of lies the administration has told (and keeps telling) to cover up its law breaking.
The American public doesn't like being lied to. And these guys are world-class liars. They make Jim Frey look like a piker when it comes to selling us a bill of goods.
After all, this is the same bunch that lied so often and so effectively about the link between Saddam and 9/11 that in Feb. 2005 -- 8 months after the 9/11 Commission had reported otherwise -- 46% of Americans still believed this outright fabrication.
And now the folks who brought us the Saddam-9/11 connection are determined to sell us the Big Lie that only conversations involving al-Qaeda members are being scrutinized. "If there are people inside our country," said the president during the Sate of the Union, "who are talking with Al Qaeda, we want to know about it."
Sounds reasonable. But are there really thousands of al-Qaeda operatives in America? Government officials told the Washington Post that the NSA program had sifted through "hundreds of thousands of faxes, emails, and phone calls" leading to around 5,000 Americans being eavesdropped on without a warrant. But of those 5,000, fewer than 10 per year aroused enough suspicion to merit taking the surveillance to the next level.
And have any of those few potential suspects turned out to actually be al-Qaeda operatives? Who knows? The administration refuses to offer any particulars. All we have is Vice President Cheney's astounding assertion that the illegal spying has "saved thousands of lives." Really? How so? Whose lives? When and how were they saved? Was there a major terrorist operation that was thwarted that I missed? (It's not like the White House is shy about trying to take credit for any terrorist operations -- even highly dubious ones -- they"ve prevented.)
Where is the proof that even one life has been saved thanks to warrantless domestic spying?
Of course, this is the same Dick Cheney who assured us in 2002, "We do know, with absolute certainty, that [Saddam] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon". The same Dick Cheney who told us in 2003: "We know [Saddam] has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization." The same Dick Cheney who, also in 2003, asserted it was "only a matter of time until [Saddam] acquires nuclear weapons." The same Dick Cheney who, in 2005, insisted that the insurgency was in its "last throes." Quite the track record when it comes to making stuff up.
And Cheney isn't the only one in the administration peddling lies about the illegal spying operation.
During the 2004 campaign, President Bush famously defended the Patriot Act by telling voters, "By the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order... When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do." This was some two years, after he had authorized wiretaps without a court order. By the way. In that same speech he also assured the crowd, "We value the Constitution." Perhaps the biggest lie of all.
And just last week, during the State of the Union, Bush claimed, "Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have and federal courts have approved the use of that authority." But when Russ Feingold pressed Gonzales on the point at Monday's hearing, asking "Do you know of any other president who has authorized warrantless wiretaps outside of FISA since 1978, when FISA was passed?", all the AG could muster was a hapless, "Um, none come to mind, Senator." We'll take that as a "no" -- and proof of yet another Bush lie.
Gonzales also has a history of lying about the warrantless spying. During his confirmation hearing, he dismissed a question (again from Feingold) about warrantless eavesdropping as a "hypothetical situation" and insisted that "it is not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would in contravention of our criminal statutes." He also promised Feingold that, should the president ever decide to authorize warrantless surveillance, he would "advise the Congress as soon as I reasonably can." But the president, with Gonzales' input, had already been doing exactly that for over three years when the question was asked. I guess it depends on what your definitions of "hypothetical" and "as soon as I reasonably can" are. And also your definition of "lying through your teeth even though you are under oath."
So far, the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have adopted a strong tone with Gonzales. But Democrats have an ignominious recent history of coming out of the gate hard, then quickly sounding retreat as soon as the White House cries "soft on defense!"
This time, they need to stay on the offensive, making the case every chance they can that our national security is being undercut by Bush's lawbreaking and lies.