Congress and Spying: Fool You Twice, Shame on You
The White House rolled out a charm offensive yesterday designed to convince the American people that the executive branch can be trusted not to abuse the new surveillance powers granted to it last week by a pliant Congress. "Senior administration officials," wrote Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, "cited a combination of legal barriers and resource restrictions that they said would keep the government from sifting through e-mails and phone calls of Americans without obtaining court warrants first."
Here is what those officials said: "We're really talking about targeting people, directed targeting at people overseas.... If the target is overseas, you don't need a warrant. If the target is in the United States, you do." Here is what they didn't say, but may as well have: "We completely violated the trust of the American people, with the permission of their legislators, with the original Patriot Act and with our other warrantless surveillance and information-gathering procedures. But we feel as though we can be trusted this time despite the fact that judicial review is limited and we aren't required even to disclose to Congress many of the details of our work."
Here's how Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times framed it: "The new measure, signed into law by the president on Sunday, allows intelligence officials to eavesdrop without a warrant on international phone calls or e-mail messages to or from an American inside the United States, but only if they conclude that the "target" is outside this country. The legislation gives broad discretion to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, rather than a judge, in deciding how those complicated surveillance decisions are made."
And here is how The Post's venerable Walter Pincus put it: "The Bush administration plans to leave oversight of its expanded foreign eavesdropping program to the same government officials who supervise the surveillance activities and to the intelligence personnel who carry them out, senior government officials said yesterday."
I wish that someone on Capitol Hill would explain why the White House deserves such latitude and lack of oversight given its horrendous track record in this area. I wish that someone would explain why this latest generation of warrantless surveillance power is less likely to be abused -- intentionally or not -- than was its predecessor program. And mostly, I wish that someone could persuade me that executive branch officials, including serial deceiver and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, deserve to be trusted when they come back to Congress a few months from now and "update" the legislators on their work.
This White House has repeatedly failed or refused to play it straight with the Congress. And members of Congress have repeatedly discovered that the truth is not what administration officials have said it was. So why did Congress roll over like a poodle and cede its oversight powers last week?
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. How many times is Congress going to be fooled before it acts upon its shame?
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