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Message Randolph Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. A couple of weeks ago, Doug Thompson, the proprietor of the political news Web site Capital Hill Blue, reported that President Bush referred to the Constitution as "just a goddamned piece of paper."
This remark came during a November meeting with Republican Congressional leaders about renewal of the Patriot Act. They were trying to tell the president that some of his conservative supporter are still upset over what they believe is an overreach of federal power.
"I don't give a goddamn," Bush allegedly retorted. "I'm the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way. ... Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It's just a goddamned piece of paper."
This story, according to Thompson, vouched for as true by at least three people present at the meeting, reinforces our view that not only does the Bush administration not care about the Constitution or civil liberties, it also is quick to confuse dissent with disloyalty.
Last week, NBC News reported that the U.S. military has been spying on peaceful anti-war and counter-military recruitment groups. The military has been collecting data on what it calls "suspicious incidents," more than 1,500 over a 10-month period. In reality, it was tracking people who oppose the Iraq war.
It is reminiscent of the widespread spying and infiltration of anti-war groups by the military in the 1960s and 1970s. During the Vietnam War, more than 100,000 American citizens were investigated by the military and the abuses were so great that Congress passed a law in 1982 limiting domestic spying by the military.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, those laws were circumvented by the Bush administration. The Pentagon created a new database called TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice), to keep track of activists and anti-war incidents. By law, the military can gather this type of information if a legitimate threat exists. But the reports are supposed to be discarded after 90 day if no credible threat exists.
It was found that the information was not being assessed and was not being discarded. Instead, it is accumulating and getting in the way of surveillance of legitimate threats to national security.
Domestic spying on Americans has greatly increased since 9/11. That's why it was not surprising to read the The New York Times' report that in 2002, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to start spying on Americans without seeking the required court-ordered warrants that mandated by federal law for domestic surveillance.
The NSA, whose job is it is to spy on communications abroad, has monitored the international telephone calls and e-mails of thousands of people inside the United States without court approval. The Bush administration has claimed the need to do this sort of spying because of the threat of terrorism. Following the law would undermine the nation's ability to protect itself, they claim, even though, as the NBC and Times stories illustrate, much of the spying that is being done is of dubious value and adds little to national security.
The White House can come up with all the excuses and legal hairsplitting it wants. But President Bush clearly violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
That federal law makes it a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, to intentionally conduct electronic surveillance without a search warrant or court order. There is no law on the books that gives the president the power to spy on its citizens without a court warrant.
President Bush seems to be invoking Richard Nixon's principle when dealing with the law: "When the president does it that means it is not illegal." Nixon was already out of office when he said that in 1977. He didn't have the power, like Bush seems to think he has, to make it a presidential directive.
The White House does not have the power to decide on its own what laws it chooses to follow. The rule of law has not yet been repealed.
That's why we are now at a critical juncture in our nation's history. We are being told we should trust the president and accept his assurances that what he is doing is legal and right without the slightest bit of questioning.
"Trust of government cannot be demanded, or asserted or assumed, it must be earned," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who has led the fight against reauthorization of the Patriot Act. "And this government has not earned our trust. It has fought reasonable safeguards for constitutional freedoms every step of the way."
Feingold was the only Senator that voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. It has taken four years for him and others, such as Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., to build up a majority in Congress to challenge President Bush's interpretation of the Constitution.
Despite the attitude of the Bush administration, it is possible to fight terrorism and protect civil liberties. It is not just possible, it is essential to the health of our democracy. It's not that far a slide down the slippery slope from democracy to police state when a government can spy on its citizens for any reason at all and do so with impunity.
It is time to demand accountability. If we are a nation of laws, not men, there will be a complete and honest investigation of how the Bush administration has conducted the war on terrorism since 9/11.
The accumulated evidence of the four years since 9/11 has shown that the Bush administration cannot be trusted. If laws were violated, as they apparently were, people must be punished including the president.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at
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