The terrorist attack had been as devastating as it was unexpected. Convinced that better intelligence was the key to preventing fresh attacks, the president resolved to seek legislation granting the executive branch broad new wiretapping powers.
But he had a problem: The opposition party, which controlled Congress, was equally determined to block provisions that they saw as an affront to privacy.
“If the Government of the United States can through, quote-unquote, good faith tap our phones and intrude into our lives, they violate our constitutional liberties, and that is something that we should not tolerate,” one congressman thundered.
“The FBI can gain access to individual phone billing records without a subpoena or a court order. Once again I believe that infringes upon our constitutional rights and liberties, and while we are trying to deal with terrorism, and we should, we should not violate our constitutional rights and liberties, and I believe this bill in its present form does,” he said
A colleague in the Senate noted that existing law already provided for emergency eavesdropping in situations where urgency would not allow a warrant to be obtained in advance, because, “In the real world, we do not need this amendment to get emergency wiretap authority, and that is a fact.”
The president? That was William Jefferson Clinton. The terrorist attack was the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The legislation at issue — which ultimately passed without the wiretap provisions the president had sought — was the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
And the outraged congressman doing his best impression of an ACLU attorney? That was Republican Dan Burton of Indiana, now a vocal defender of warrantless wiretapping authorized by President George Bush. He was seconded by Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah who now believes that only those with an “irrational fear of government” fret about the extent of executive surveillance powers.
Perhaps the reversal of roles we have seen in the present wrangling over reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can be attributed to 9/11, which (as the saying goes) “changed everything.”
Or maybe loathing of Clinton trumped all other considerations. But another possibility is that Republicans’ support for executive surveillance authority in recent decades is rooted as much in historical accident as any deep conservative principle.
EXECUTIVE WIRETAPPING first emerged as a central political issue in the late 1970s, when the Senate’s Church Committee uncovered a long history of surveillance abuses, culminating in the supposedly uniquely brazen actions of Richard Nixon, who had “authorized a program of wiretaps which produced for the White House purely political or personal information unrelated to national security.”
Up until this point, as Cato Institute scholar Gene Healy documents in his forthcoming book The Cult of the Presidency, Republicans had been more consistent opponents of expanding executive power than their Democratic colleagues.
After the humiliations of Watergate, however, conservative legal thinkers began to insist that Congress and the courts had overstepped their bounds. During the Reagan administration, the Heritage Foundation began urging repeal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which had been passed in 1978 as a result of the Church Committee’s findings.
The campaign stalled due in large part not to the hand wringing of civil libertarians but to the opposition of the intelligence community. “We hear people say we can’t get the surveillance we need or can’t meet the court’s standard,” said Edward O’Malley, who headed the FBI’s intelligence division under President Reagan. “That’s just not true. We have no problem getting the surveillance we need, and the court also has protected the rights of Americans, which is necessary. … We support this 100 percent.”
There were then, as there are now, exceptions on the right. The FISA law — now damned by conservatives as an impossibly burdensome, possibly even unconstitutional obstacle to legitimate executive surveillance — was opposed by the New York Times’s designated conservative columnist William Safire, who feared that it would “turn every telephone instrument in every home into a suspected household spy.”
Acknowledging conservatives “natural inclination to help the law,” Safire nevertheless urged that it be trumped by “a responsibility to protect the law-abiding individual from the power of government to intrude.” By then, however, he was probably in the minority among right wingers.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?