10/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

End the Fishing Expedition and Abide by (or Fix) the Law

For the past seven years, Vice President Dick Cheney has captained a vast fishing expedition into the private lives of Americans. That expedition is now even more apparent as Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman's Angler hits the stands this week.

According to Gellman, after September 11, the Bush administration surmised the terrorist threat had changed the United State's security situation so vastly that the National Security Agency "had to fish with a big net, not a hook" while the Constitution's checks and balances got torpedoed. The American Civil Liberties Union has long argued that this administration has ensnared us all in a liberty-restricting surveillance society -- using the communications and transportation that Americans enjoy daily as the net. Angler reveals a shocking level of hubris and defiance by the vice president's office of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the law that has guided government surveillance for decades -- and seeks to protect our civil liberties.

The vice president and his top aides, Gellman wrote, would spy on Americans, but "[t]hey would not tell the FISA court. They would not seek legislation. They would rely on the president's asserted authority as commander in chief to defy explicit prohibitions of law." Vice President Cheney apparently not only sanctioned an historic executive branch power grab to foster a series of misguided and perhaps criminal policies, he also "set aside the law" to run his ship in a veritable cloud of darkness. The "invisible unreviewable" legal framework and "near-hermetic secrecy" in governing that Gellman describes simply will not do even in an age of terrorism.

More than half a million ACLU members understand that America is not a monarchy. The next president and Congress must release us from the chilling net of unnecessary surveillance and restore the Constitution's fundamental freedoms. The next president and Congress must hold accountable those who have broken the law -- no matter who they are.

The ACLU believes the new administration and Congress together should review the surveillance structure from top to bottom. In its first hundred days, the next administration should take at least three steps to restore the critical constitutional checks and balances citizens demand. First, our leaders should ensure there is no more warrantless spying; second, they should direct the attorney general and other relevant agency heads to end government monitoring of political activists who are not suspected of involvement in criminal activity; and, third, they should review the government's terrorist watch lists so that the names on the lists are limited to those who would do us harm.

In addition, Congress and the president must finally disclose how the "drift net over America" Gellman describes actually operates. How are authorities granted to executive agencies by the PATRIOT Act being used to collect information here in the United States? Do the rules withstand public scrutiny? According to two FBI inspector general reports, the only surveillance authority that has ever had an independent and public review -- the national security letter provision -- has been rampantly abused. National security letters are used to secretly request private telephone or banking records without judicial oversight, and the provision has been struck down by federal courts for being unconstitutional.

Congress and the public deserve real answers about the myriad post-9/11 abuses of authority. It's time to reel in the fishing expeditions undertaken by this administration, and put in place a new leadership that will hold itself accountable to the Constitution and the rule of law.