Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

America Sold Short

By David G. Young

Omaha, Nebraska, December 20, 2005 --  

President Bush's defiant declaration that he intends to continue spying on Americans without court warrants is an inexcusable violation of civil liberties worthy of his impeachment and removal from office. Sadly for the rule of law, the likelihood of this happening at a time of war approaches zero, especially given that Senate Democratic leaders were informed of his plans, and kept them in confidence. The most powerful members of the opposition party are therefore complicit in his high crimes.

The lid came off the top of the president's secret program on Friday, when the New York Times reported via anonymous sources in the government that the National Security Agency had been listening in on international phone conversations of Americans with even the most superficial connections to suspected Islamic militants. Bush ignored a legal requirement that such wiretaps have the approval of a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and then explained on Sunday that his self-declared authority to spy on Americans without judicial oversight is part of his power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

It is highly unlikely that the president's power grab will be upheld in court, given judges' general disdain for executives who usurp judicial authority. And despite the president's propensity to simply ignore judicial oversight, it would be extremely difficult for a president with already sagging public approval ratings to simply defy a Supreme Court ruling against him. Such a severe rebuke could severely erode Bush's authority. It is the very prospect of such a rebuke from the Supreme Court that has led the president to back down in a number of high-profile legal cases -- most recently with respect to Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen held without trial for years simply because the president declared he was an "enemy combatant" without providing any evidence. Rather than face an impending rebuke by the Supreme Court, the president simply undeclared him an enemy combatant, charged him under criminal law, and sought to stop the related case from ever getting to the Supreme Court for a ruling.

These cases matter greatly because they deal with fundamental nature of America as a free country. America cannot fight a battle against the enemies of freedom by abandoning its freedoms at home. The America I love does not throw its citizens in jail without trail. The America that I love does not eavesdrop on its citizens without a warrant from a court. For the president to do otherwise is to violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, forbidding searches without a warrant or probable cause. And if blatantly and explicitly violating our constitutional bill of rights is not a "high crime" worthy of the president's impeachment, nothing is.

By informing the leaders of both parties in congress of his plans for domestic espionage, the president has largely insulated himself from any congressional punishment at all, let alone impeachment. Those who knew about the program, yet said nothing, are every bit as deserving of public rebuke.

Sadly, there are no heroes in this story, even amongst those who revealed it. The New York Times withheld information about the secret program for a year at the president's request, and only published it on the eve of a politically polarized Senate vote on the renewal of the Patriot Act, which was ultimately blocked by filibuster over similar civil liberties concerns. Republicans who cried foul over the apparent political timing of the article are justified in their outrage. By dubiously withholding information about severe violations of human rights, and then apparently using it as a political tool, the New York Times has dealt a self-inflicted blow to its reputation for objectivity.

Given such an outrageous and distressing series of events, America is in severe need of political saviors. Somewhere, there must be genuine patriots who know that America's freedoms are what gives the country its strength, and are not weaknesses to be circumvented. Above all, Americans need leaders who are not willing to sell their values short just because a once-popular president at a time of war asked them to do so.