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Checks, balances there for a reason

The Spokesman-Review

The geyser that has erupted over domestic spying is the product of a political struggle that’s as old as the Bush administration. The 9/11 attacks tamped down the opposition for awhile, but because public opinion has turned against the war in Iraq and some tenets of the Patriot Act, the battle has heated up again. Last week’s revelations rightly brought it to a full boil.

The Bush administration has always had an expansive view of executive powers. From the day it announced to Congress that it didn’t have to reveal who attended energy policy conferences, the White House has maintained that Congress has limited authority over its activities.

Critics who figured Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force had something to hide missed the point. The White House wasn’t debating the merits of secrecy so much as it was scorning the checks and balances of government.

This principle has been invoked repeatedly ever since. Torture? None of your business. Secret prisons? None of your business. Domestic spying? None of your business.

The only time the White House has capitulated is when the public has made it clear that it wants answers. That was true with the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee probe into the information used to sell the Iraq war.

Now the president’s “trust us” policy is facing its sternest test. The revelation that Bush personally authorized domestic spying by the National Security Agency – without seeking warrants – is straining the patience of even many Republican allies in Congress.

For reasons Bush hasn’t adequately explained, the White House refused to comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress passed after the abuses of the Nixon administration. FISA established secret courts as a check against executive power. Some check. Those courts have approved 99 percent of search requests. Still, the White House has brazenly bypassed the process that already affords more secrecy than dedicated civil libertarians think comfortable.

President Bush says the government needs to move fast, but the courts take only a few hours, and warrants can even be obtained after the fact. It’s a flexible law.

Americans who are comforted by the president’s assurance that he acted for their protection should recall the words written by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 1. Arguing for ratification of the Constitution – which Bush regularly insists must be interpreted according to the framers’ intent – Hamilton cautioned: “… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

Congress has been a negligent watchdog over this trend, partly because of the terrorist attacks and partly because it is led by the same party as the president. It needs to reassert itself, and quickly.

No branch of government in a democracy should have unaccountable power. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., put it best: “We can’t become an outcome-based democracy. Even in a time of war, you have to follow the process, because that’s what a democracy is all about: a process.”

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