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President is as powerful as he is unpopular

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published January 29, 2006


Republicans are practically dancing in the Senate aisles over the prospect of Samuel Alito joining Chief Justice John Roberts on the Supreme Court, saying these two conservatives will bring some badly needed "judicial restraint" to the court. If only they were as concerned about presidential restraint.

Bush, who is acting more like a monarch than an unpopular president, might as well wear a crown to go with the powers he has claimed. Under his "inherent" authority as commander in chief, Bush says he is free to conduct warrantless eavesdropping on Americans, detain anyone suspected of a terrorist connection indefinitely and without due process, ignore the Geneva Conventions against torture and just about any other law or treaty that would limit his expansive executive powers. Even after signing antitorture legislation, Bush made it clear in a "signing statement" that he intends to interpret the new law, which he resisted mightily, to suit his purposes.

If al-Qaida operatives abroad are talking to someone in the United States, Bush says the government needs to know. Of course it does. That's not the issue. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows domestic eavesdropping in national security cases. However, it requires a warrant from a secret court that rarely says no. It even allows the government to eavesdrop first and seek a warrant later.

At his news conference on Thursday, Bush said the surveillance act "was written in 1978" and now "it's a different world" because of terrorism. Bush seemed to be saying the law is outdated. However, he insists that there is no need for Congress to update it. In fact, he said last week that efforts in Congress to rewrite the 1978 law to expressly give the president authority to conduct surveillance without a warrant are unnecessary and even dangerous.

The president doesn't stop there. His administration has asserted that FISA would be unconstitutional if it were read to prevent the president from doing what he has been doing - conducting domestic surveillance without a warrant. In other words, Congress can write laws but Bush will decide what they mean.

What's the public to make of it all?

The president has framed the issue in a way that, at least for now, gives him the political advantage over his critics. The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll shows that a majority of Americans approve of warrantless eavesdropping to reduce the threat of terrorism even as they expressed some uneasiness that Bush's antiterrorism measures could diminish civil liberties.

Meanwhile, Karl Rove, the president's unindicted leaker in the CIA leak case, stooped to a new low in suggesting that Democrats still have a "pre-9/11 worldview" when it comes to fighting terrorists. "Let me be as clear as I can be - President Bush believes if al-Qaida is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why," Rove told a Republican audience last week. "Some important Democrats clearly disagree."

What a loathsome insinuation. Some Republicans also have expressed doubt about the legality of Bush's surveillance program. Senate hearings are scheduled next month, but senators probably shouldn't expect much cooperation from an imperial White House that routinely defies congressional investigators.

Last week, the White House stiffed a Senate committee trying to determine why the administration was so unprepared for Hurricane Katrina. Bush to Senate: Drop dead. Citing executive privilege, the president's men have refused to provide the documents and witnesses the committee requested. If only the levees around New Orleans were as formidable as the walls this White House has erected to protect the dirty little secrets of the most secretive administration in modern times. Don't even think about asking the White House to release that photo of Bush and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the latest poster boy for Washington corruption.

Bad news has no place in Bush's world. Neither does reality. To hear the president tell it, everything in Iraq - the war and the reconstruction - is going just fine. The government is doing everything it can for the victims of Katrina. There is nothing wrong with the economy that more tax cuts can't cure. His Medicare drug plan is just what the doctor ordered, even if people are being turned away by their pharmacies because of computer glitches, poor planning by the insurance companies and bureaucratic bungling.

So much executive power, so little competence.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is gailey@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 28, 2006, 00:47:01]


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