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Oversight by Capitulation

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Despite a dip in his opinion polls, George W. Bush's transformation of the United States into an authoritarian society continues apace, with new "compromises" with Congress actually consolidating his claims to virtually unlimited executive power.

Bush's latest success came as part of a supposed "concession" to Congress that would grant two new Republican-controlled seven-member subcommittees narrow oversight of Bush's warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

While "moderate" Republican senators - Mike DeWine of Ohio, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska - hailed the plan as a retreat by the White House, the deal actually blesses Bush's authority to bypass the courts in spying on Americans and imposes on him only a toothless congressional review process.

Indeed, the congressional plan may make matters worse, broadening the permissible scope of Bush's wiretaps to include Americans deemed to be "working in support of a terrorist group or organization."

Given Bush's record of stretching words to his advantage - and his claim that anyone who isn't "with us" is with the terrorists - the vague concept of "working in support" could open almost any political critic of the Bush administration to surveillance.

Plus, the only check on abuses would be the closed-door oversight work of the seven-member panels, which would only be informed of a warrantless wiretap after it had been in place for 45 days. Republicans also would have four of the seven seats on each subcommittee and any dissent from the minority Democrats would be kept secret.

In other words, the plan would let Bush and his Republican congressional loyalists conduct wiretaps of anyone whose activities might be called supportive of terrorists, while any Democratic critic would be muzzled from saying anything publicly under penalty of law.

Chilling Powers

Under such an arrangement, it would not be difficult to envision the wiretapping of journalists writing critical articles about the abuse of terrorism suspects, or of disarmament experts who disagree with Bush's claims about some "rogue" state's weapons of mass destruction, or of a political rival who challenges Bush's interpretation of his Commander-in-Chief powers.

Indeed, many Bush supporters have lobbed accusations of "treason" against the likes of journalist Seymour Hersh, weapons inspector Scott Ritter and former Vice President Al Gore - because they have presented information that clashes with Bush's agenda.

Other influential Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have urged Bush to move aggressively against suspected "fifth columnists" inside the United States who supposedly sympathize with the enemy.

Graham also has called on Bush to use high-tech surveillance techniques to "map the battlefield electronically," which in the Internet Age means going beyond assessing the physical battlefield to examine the political connections among potential enemies so they can be neutralized at a time of crisis.

"Here's where I think I'm your biggest fan," Graham told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Feb. 6. "During the time of war, the administration has the inherent power, in my opinion, to surveil the enemy and to map the battlefield electronically - not just physical, but to electronically map what the enemy is up to by seizing information and putting that puzzle together.

"And the administration has not only the right, but the duty, in my opinion, to pursue Fifth Column movements," Graham said. "I stand by this President's ability, inherent to being Commander in Chief, to find out about Fifth Column movements, and I don't think you need a warrant to do that."

Though the Bush administration has denied abusing its four-year-old warrantless wiretapping program, it has been unwilling to give details about the numbers of people swept up in the surveillance or define the precise criteria for who's wiretapped.

Bush has insisted that the wiretaps are limited to the international communications of people in the United States who have gotten calls from al-Qaeda or its affiliates.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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