According to Sunday's New York Times, Vice President Dick Cheney argued that the National Security Agency should have the power to wiretap domestic phone calls and intercept e-mails without warrants in order to hunt down terrorists. This is actually a non-story, a front page attempt to generate paranoia and cast the Bush administration in a negative light; it amounts to the "revelation" that in the weeks after 9/11 members of Bush's inner circle debated how far the government could legally go in trying to protect the American people.
Whoa, stop the presses!
The Times account mentions that NSA lawyers, more familiar than Cheney was with the agency's strict rules against domestic spying, argued that warrantless searches must be limited to communications into and out of the country. That position is the one that ultimately prevailed.
Though the story tells us more about anti-Bush bias at the Times -- another non-revelation -- than it does about national security, there are at least two inadvertent lessons to be gleaned from the coverage:
1) The Bush administration is not a monolith. Mainstream media outlets often depict President Bush trapped inside an intellectual bubble, surrounded by maniacal schemers and yes men. But the debate over the limits of domestic surveillance provides a more realistic glimpse into Bush's decision-making process: The question was what measures the government could take, under the current law, to enhance national security without irreparably undermining civil liberties. Bush heard out Cheney on the subject; he also heard out the NSA pros. In the end, he went with the advice of the NSA pros.
2) Dick Cheney is not running the country. After six retired generals recently called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, mainstream media outlets ridiculed President Bush's plainspoken response: "I'm the decider. I decide what's best." But that appears to be exactly the case. Bush calls the shots in the White House. He thought Cheney's suggestion of wiretapping domestic calls and e-mails went too far, so he nixed it. End of conversation.
The editorial board of the Times has yet to grasp the fact that America is at war with Islamofascism. President Bush and his cabinet have grasped it and are grappling with its implications. For their efforts, they'll continue to be savaged by the Times on the slightest pretext. But history has a way of sorting things out. Stories like last Sunday's will redound to the newspaper's infamy, not the President's.
Mark Goldblatt teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York (MGold57@aol.com).
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