What Do You Want Bush to Say on NSA?
Unlike many of his fiercest critics, I don't blame President Bush for his vague remarks Thursday about the latest kerfluffle in the saga of the National Security Agency's efforts to monitor the activities of both friend and foe. I watched the President's speech live, and I read the transcript later, and it dawns on me that he said precisely all there is to reasonably say about a program that by its nature precludes a great deal of public debate. This is spying we are talking about, after all. So what else but nothing could the President truly say in candor that wouldn't destroy his Administration's policy choices when it comes to domestic surveillance?
By this I don't mean to suggest that I believe the program has enough legislative or judicial oversight -- how can anyone really tell? -- and I certainly don't mean to imply that even with the proper oversight the program makes sense. These are the same people, remember, who couldn't find known al-Qaeda operatives within the U.S. before 9/11 and wouldn't listen to the FBI agent who thought Zacarias Moussaoui was a terrorist a month before the attacks. It's just that no one should expect the President to sound like anyone but a lawyer as he offers a legal defense of an activity that has its fair share of skeptics, both in and out of the legal community.
The Administration, in other words, is making the only arguments it can make -- that the program in its many forms is both legal and necessary. Making a judgment about the "necessary" part is beyond the scope of our reach because neither you nor I have access to the information that would permit an educated evaluation of what the program is, what it is intended to do and how likely it is that it will accomplish its goal. Congress can take a whack at whether the program truly is necessary, and maybe some leaders already have. But if they have, they sure weren't running in front of any cameras on Thursday.
That leaves only the "legal" argument -- the one the President made in so many ambiguous words before live television cameras. It is the same argument the White House has made before to Congress when the spy program first was outed last fall. It is the same argument the administration has used and will continue to use in court. It is the same argument the White House will make until this President leaves office or until the other two branches decide that it is a lousy argument without enough Constitutional foundation to allow it to continue to stand.
My point is that it is now incumbent upon those other two branches to react -- more quickly than they have so far, if you ask me -- to the grandiose and disturbing claim the administration has staked out on this issue. The law is not nearly as clear as the Administration would have you believe. It is not nearly as settled. In fact, if it is settled at all, it is settled against the Administration's position. It's not the empty words from the President that concern me. It's the policy chioces that have made those words so necessary so often lately.
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