U.S. officials insist the president has the executive authority to order the NSA to tap phone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and other countries without a warrant from a specially designated court. They argue this is a wartime measure to conduct surveillance associated with terrorists.
The U.S. government is seeking to defend openly these spying and harassment operations, which the political police have had to conduct more surreptitiously since the early 1970s because of the political space working people won in struggle then.
In a January 3 speech, Vice President Richard Cheney defended the spying program as part of a home front in the war on terror. He said, If wed been able to do this before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up two hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon.
To counter criticism of the NSAs actions, Cheney said, I was in Washington in the 1970s, at a time when there was great and legitimate concern about civil liberties and about potential abuses within the executive branch, noting that he had served as White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, after the resignation of Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal. The Bush administration supports the principles of civil liberties established in the 1970s, he said, adding: As we get farther away from September 11th, some in Washington are yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our country.
Cheney said the bipartisan 9/11 Commissions 2004 report focused on our inability to cover links between terrorists at home and terrorists abroad. The NSA snooping operation helped address that problem, he said, and as a result our nation has gone four years and four months without another 9/11.
Cheney also pointed out that Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times on the presidents authorization of the spying operations.
Were at war, Bush declared two days earlier. If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, wed like to know why. He added, The fact that somebody leaked this program causes great harm to the United States.
Bush was referring to a December 16 article in the New York Times, which reported that under a classified 2002 presidential order the NSA has spied on international phone and e-mail communications of hundreds or thousands of people without obtaining a warrant.
In 1978, U.S. Congress adopted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It established a secret court, located on the top floor of the Justice Department, that issues warrants to federal police agenciesoften after the factto conduct domestic wiretapping. In the last 27 years, the secret court has declined only five out of 19,000 such requests.
Responding to the charge that the warrantless spying violates the 1978 law, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said December 19 that it was legally based on the authorization to use force, which was passed by Congress in the days following September 11. He added, We also believe that the president has the inherent authority under the constitution, as commander-in-chief, to engage in this kind of authority.
The December 16 Times article acknowledged that the editors had delayed publication for a year after the White House asked them not to publish the article, and that some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.
On January 1 the Times published a column by Byron Calame, the dailys public reporter, described as the readers representative. Calame complained that the newspapers explanation of the one-year delay was woefully inadequate, and that the executive editor and publisher had refused to respond to his 28 questions on the matter.
Cheneys references to the 1970s were calculated. Under the impact of the Black rights and other struggles at the time, Washingtons defeat in Vietnam, and the resulting Watergate crisis, some of the governments unconstitutional police actions were exposed. Hearings were held in 1975 by a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church. They exposed CIA assassination plots abroad and illegal actions at home against critics of government policyincluding the use of informers, agents provocateurs, wiretaps, mail openings, black bag jobs, and the NSAs domestic watch list.
Such operations, including the FBIs Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro), were further exposed through a lawsuit the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance filed in 1973 against the FBI, CIA, and other cop agencies because of their decades of harassment and disruption. In 1986 the socialists won a federal court ruling that these actions were unconstitutional. In their lawsuit, the SWP and YSA submitted reports from the Church committee as part of the evidence.
In 1976 the Justice Department issued guidelines for domestic security investigations. It said the FBI had ended its investigation of the SWP after 40 years. Oversight measures such as the FISA wiretap court were instituted.
The recent statements by top U.S. officials are part of the campaign to reverse the political gains registered in those measures.
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