Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Wiretaps and women

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

Hypocrisy, thy name is . . .

Not an easy call in the first month of 2006. If you thought 2005 was a banner year for political hypocrisy--if you thought watching Democrats berate President Bush for lying about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction after they cited the same intel was one for the record books--well, get ready. Two old Democratic war horses--OK, antiwar horses--are in a red-hot race for this year's Golden Globe for Political Hypocrisy after this last week.

First, there was Sen. Ted Kennedy's double-barreled offering in the hearings for Judge Samuel Alito. He fretted to The New York Times last Sunday that the Senate confirmation process has become so "politicized." Brassy enough, but the man who lumbered to the Senate floor within an hour of Judge Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination to launch a vicious political attack on the nominee didn't stop there. After spending a week badgering Alito for somehow being a "sexist" because he once belonged to Concerned Alumni for Princeton, Kennedy admitted that, yes, he belonged to an all-male social club for Harvard alumni for the last 52 years, though he was going to quit "as fast as I can."

Now, many believe Kennedy takes the trophy any time he lectures anyone on ethical responsibility, much less the treatment of women. But this past week's double-dipper deserves special recognition. You can't coach this kind of happy-face hypocrisy.

But Al Gore's giving him some, shall we say, stiff competition. Witness his Monday growlings on the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program and Bush's "threat to the very structure of our government."

Leave aside whether the NSA's warrantless surveillance is "pervasive" and Gore's stock-in-trade hyperbole. Bush's case for the legality and constitutionality of the NSA program rests on two pillars: Congress' "Authorization for Use of Military Force" in September 2001 and a president's inherent constitutional powers as commander-in-chief. Gore actually acknowledged the president's inherent constitutional powers "to take unilateral action to protect the nation from a sudden and immediate threat," but says this "legalistic term" cannot justify the NSA program.

It's worth recalling, however, that the Clinton-Gore administration cited the president's inherent power as authority to conduct physical searches without court order in foreign intelligence cases. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick told the Senate just this in July 1994. And even after Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to permit such searches, she continued to maintain the president--presumably any president--had the inherent authority to act unilaterally in this area. In short, Gore's own administration recognized the inherent powers Bush relied on to justify NSA eavesdropping on chats between al-Qaida terrorists overseas and contacts here--and this was long before 9/11.

But the president's inherent powers only form the legal underpinnings of the NSA program. Gore's real gripe seems to be that Bush is using his inherent authority too much, even in wartime. He's upset about the practical impact of Bush's assertion of presidential power--the "pervasive wiretapping."

The administration describes an NSA warrantless surveillance program that's quite limited. But there was nothing limited about the NSA Echelon program that CBS's "60 Minutes" reported on during the Clinton-Gore administration. It picked up electronic signals from around the world, including cell-phone conversations, fax transmissions and ATM transfers. "The information is then sent on to NSA...," co-host Steve Kroft said, "where acres of supercomputers scan millions of transmissions word by word, looking for key phrases and, some say, specific voices that may be of major significance."

Was it possible for innocent civilians--"people like you and I"--to be targeted when Echelon eavesdrops on foreign nations, terrorists and drug cartels, he asked. "Not only possible, not only probable, but factual," said his source for the story.

Funny, Gore didn't protest this "pervasive" NSA program--and this was before 9/11 and today's war.

Unlike Kennedy, Gore's tackling life-and-death issues, which is why he's the favorite to walk away with this year's Golden Globe for Political Hypocrisy.

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