The good news is Republican members of Congress finally stood up to President Bush. The bad news is they picked an issue where he was right and they were wrong.
Following the lead of such thoughtful, temperate Democrats as New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, Republicans worked themselves into a lather over a Dubai company's purchase of a British company that holds the leases for terminal operations at six U.S. ports. But the lather consisted mostly of hot air: The vast majority of port operations in the U.S. already are run by foreign-owned companies; security in those ports remains the responsibility of the Coast Guard and the Customs Service; and there was no good reason to believe the Dubai deal would have increased our vulnerability to terrorist attack..
Swimming away from the president as fast as they could to ride a wave of xenophobia, Republican legislators seemed barely to notice he had hijacked the ship of state and thrown them overboard. The same week they courageously capitulated to popular unease about foreigners running our ports, they bravely surrendered to Bush's assertion of unchecked executive power.
Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee reached a deal with the White House concerning the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program that allows members of Congress to claim they're asserting their constitutional authority even while the president refuses to acknowledge it. The deal includes legislation that authorizes the NSA to monitor e-mail and phone calls between people in the U.S. and people in other countries without a warrant as long as at least one party is suspected of ties to a terrorist group.
The bill not only puts a congressional stamp of approval on surveillance the NSA has been conducting without statutory authorization for four years; it approves surveillance wider than the administration says it has been conducting. The NSA program supposedly has been limited to communications involving suspected Al Qaeda operatives and hangers-on, while the proposed legislation would apply to people the administration believes are linked to any of several terrorist organizations.
The NSA would be permitted to monitor communications without a warrant for 45 days, after which the surveillance could continue indefinitely if the attorney general said it was necessary for national security. The administration is supposed to keep new seven-member "terrorist surveillance subcommittees" in the Senate and the House up to speed on the wiretap program, providing updates every 45 days.
You might wonder why we need terrorist surveillance subcommittees when we already have a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that was created to keep tabs on wiretaps involving national security. The answer is that the administration refuses to recognize the court's statutory authority. So now Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee are hoping the Bush administration will follow a new law that lets it do what it was already doing, but with a few more legislators in the loop.
Meanwhile, Bush is not conceding he needs congressional permission at all. "We're eager to work with Congress on legislation that would further codify the president's authority," a White House spokeswoman said. "We remain committed to our principle that we will not do anything that undermines the program's capabilities or the president's authority." In other words: You go ahead and pass your bill if it makes you feel better. We won't feel obligated to follow it unless it happens to coincide with what we were planning to do anyway.
Republicans may be willing to tolerate this contempt for the legislative branch when it comes from a guy on their team. But how will they feel when the next President Clinton tells them she plans to do as she pleases in fighting terrorism, using her inherent powers as commander in chief to render Congress irrelevant? Will they stand up for the separation of powers and the rule of law then? By then it may be too late.
© Copyright 2006 by Creators Syndicate Inc.