Another day, yet another new and wholly different explanation from the Bush administration about its illegal domestic spying operation.
In just the last 5 days, we've seen 3 separate explanations rolled out from the White House. First they claimed it was legal all along, then when that didn't fly, they said they had to do it because of a need for speed. Now that that has been debunked, they are actually claiming they were just too lazy to do "the paperwork." On top of this, they also first told us that the surveillance was only targeted at international calls – but now today, we learn that isn't true either, and that Americans are under surveillance on purely domestic calls.
Let's just walk through the shenanigans, shall we?
When the story first broke, the administration was clearly in panic mode, and offered up the positively ridiculous claim that the President has the authority to break the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because Congress passed a resolution right after 9/11 saying he should fight Al Qaeda. Of course, the resolution said nothing about violating the U.S. Constitution, or violating statutes protecting Americans' civil liberties - and in passing the resolution, Congress explicitly told the White House that the resolution did not authorize any extra-legal behavior. And, incredibly, the White House didn't request changes to those statutes when it passed the original Patriot Act because it knew Congress wouldn't go along. So instead of asking for changes to the law, they just broke the law.
When their "it was legal all along" argument didn't hold water, President Bush called a press conference claiming that he needed to break the law because the operations he was ordering "require quick action." He cited how terrorists in the information are able to move fast, and claimed that the process for getting a warrant would slow down law enforcement's efforts to catch them.
But then that was debunked too, as observers noted that the special FISA court Bush was legally required to get a warrant from actually allowed the White House to conduct surveillance, and get a warrant retroactively, thus not slowing down the process. Additionally, the FISA court has rejected just 4 warrant requests in a quarter century – meaning it basically gives away warrants, as long as you can show even a shred of minimum cause. As Colin Powell noted on ABC'S Nightline:
"It didn’t seem to me, anyway, that it would have been that hard to go and get the warrants. And even in the case of an emergency, you go and do it [begin surveillance]. The law provides for that. And three days later, you let the court know what you have done, and deal with it that way.”
Now, with two swings and misses, the White House is offering up perhaps the most pathetic rationale possible: we were lazy, and we just didn't feel like upholding the law. The administration is trotting out Michael Hayden, who was NSA director when the surveillance began and is now Bush's deputy director of national intelligence. The Washington Post reports that Hayden told reporters that "getting retroactive court approval is inefficient because it 'involves marshaling arguments' and 'looping paperwork around.'"
So now we really see what it's come to. The law is just a nuisance to these people. They don't feel like "marshaling arguments" or doing the "paperwork" that the law requires – the law, mind you, that was written to protect people's civil liberties, and the arguments/paperwork that are specifically required to make sure there is a check on Presidents whose henchmen are conducting surveillance operations on political enemies (ie. civil rights, anti-war, environmental, animal cruelty, and poverty relief groups).
We are supposed to feel ok about all of this because, as the New York Times noted, "Mr. Bush and his senior aides have emphasized since the disclosure of the program's existence last week that the president's executive order applied only to cases where one party on a call or e-mail message was outside the United States" (as if that means law breaking is acceptable). But even this inadequate explanation has been exposed as a lie. As the Times noted, the illegal surveillance program "has captured what are purely domestic communications."
Throughout all of this, the media and insulated elitists in the political chattering classes have obediently portrayed the controversy in "he said, she said" terms, or terms that simply justify law-breaking. As the President promises to continue breaking the law, Katie Couric banters back and forth with Tim Russert about how the only people who care about this are "constitutional scholars" – not the American people. Bloviators like William Kristol write fawning congratulations to President Bush for trampling the constitution, and go on Fox News demanding to know why President Bill Clinton hadn't trampled the Constitution when he was in office. And the Democratic Leadership Council, undermining congressional Democrats who are courageously raising questions, actually says Bush' law-breaking is entirely justified, even though we haven't been given one justification that holds water.
Yet in the media/punditry's desperate, mob-like rush to kiss the fat white ass of power even as it farts the most foul-smelling lies right in their face, none of these people have answered or even asked the very simple question: If the president is permitted to break this law with absolutely no concrete justification at all, what law isn't he allowed to break? Can he walk into a 7-11 and rob it? Can he steal taxpayer money and pocket it as his own? Or how about executing his political enemies? Can he do that, as long as he just utters phrase "national security" over and over again even if it has absolutely nothing to do with actual "national security?"
These may sound like hyperbolic questions – but they cut to what this really is about. Does the "rule of law," which President Bush has talked so much about , actually mean anything anymore in the United States of America?
Follow David Sirota on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidsirota