Answers Needed on Spying Administration, Congress Must Act Responsibly; Congress, Media Damage War Effort

Article excerpt

Byline: Harlan Ullman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Before President Bush's extraordinary admission this past weekend that he indeed had authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct electronic surveillance on U.S. citizens, this column was going to cover the Iraqi elections and was titled "No white smoke spotted in Baghdad," a reference to how the Vatican announces the selection of a new pope. The point of the piece was that the Dec. 15 vote marked the start of a lengthy and uncertain process in attempting to create a unified and working Iraqi government.

But the news of domestic spying on U.S. citizens overshadowed the Iraqi elections, especially since the procedures specified by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 for court-ordered authority to conduct covert surveillance of American citizens seemed to have been bypassed or suspended.

The president, along with senior members of his administration, argued that the Constitution and commander-in-chief provision gave the necessary authority to order this surveillance and that advances in cell phone technology necessitated streamlined procedures to monitor suspect conversations.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice further explained that September 11 changed the nature of the threat and hence the need for expanded authority to counter it. She noted that this authority was reviewed every 45 days and careful oversight was exercised by White House and Justice Department lawyers. However, as the Bush administration's policies for the treatment of enemy combatants became a self-inflicted wound, wiretapping and surveilling U.S. citizens without court order is almost certainly going to prove as or more explosive an issue - if Congress lives up to its constitutional duties.

Domestic spying is not new. In the Nixon administration's first term, paranoid about the security leaks that led to the release of the Pentagon Papers, the White House formed the infamous "Plumbers," with the specific charge of plugging these leaks. The Plumbers would come to grief over Watergate. Wiretapping of key staff members of the National Security Council, including a future national security adviser and a deputy national security adviser was authorized as well.

At the same time, the Department of Defense and the CIA delved into domestic spying activities that included stories about NSA's monitoring phone conversations made inside the United States by American citizens. One of the secret CIA programs was to surveil foreign nationals inside America, a clear violation of the law and the responsibility of the FBI. …