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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Justice Department approves Congressional investigation of Foreign Intelligence wiretaps

On Jan. 31, the U. S. Justice Department announced that it would grant certain members of Congress access to classified information regarding the National Security Agency’s wiretapping operations. Members of the House Intelligence Committee formed the investigation as a final response to the Bush administration’s unwillingness to discuss the surveillance program’s legalities. More specifically, the review is designed to give Congress a better insight into the degree of influence the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court has on the Bush administration’s surveillance program.

“Only with an understanding of the contours of the wiretapping program and the scope of the court’s orders can the Judiciary Committee determine whether the administration has reached the proper balance to protect Americans while following the law,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to The New York Times.

While things seem to be cooling down now in light of the Bush administration’s present cooperation, the NSA’s eavesdropping practices have been the subject of political ferment since December 2005, when The New York Times officially made them public. That, however, was after a year of withholding the information at the White House’s stern request.

“The fact that the government eavesdrops on those suspected of terrorist connections is well-known,” said New York Times executive editor Bill Keller to CNN. “The fact that the NSA can legally monitor communications within the United States with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is also public information.”

The report included new information, revealing that the NSA had been eavesdropping for the past three years, since Sept. 11, on Americans and others within the United States without a warrant.

“It is that expansion of authority, not the need for a robust anti-terror intelligence operation, that prompted debate within the government,” said Keller.

The President responded to the article’s release in a camera version of his weekly radio address, rebuking The New York Times for its “unauthorized disclosure” of information, which “damages our national security and puts our nation at risk.”

According to most senators and legal scholars, however, the real risk has less to do with terrorism and more with allowing Bush’s executive power to go unchecked.

“(Bush is) trying to claim somehow that the authorization for the Afghanistan attack after 9/11 permitted this, and that’s just absurd,” said Sen. Russ Feingold to CNN.

According to CNN, Bush first signed the authorization Feingold was referring to in 2002. However, as the President admitted at the time of his radio address, the surveillance program had been re-authorized “more than 30 times” since.

“I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaeda and related groups,” said Bush in the same address.

“It’s a sign of arrogance in the administration,” said Robert Duncan, assistant professor of political science.

Both Democrats and Republicans feel as though the President has overstepped his boundaries. For the time being however, they are satisfied with the Justice Department’s decision to make FISA court documents open to congressional assessment.

“This is a significant step forward,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), to Liberty Post. “I’m going to reserve judgment on the program itself until I have had a chance to review it.”

Indeed while this decision does mark a significant first step in the revision of the wiretapping program, and thus executive power, many steps may need to be taken before a conclusion is reached.

“This has placed this new Congress in a rather awkward position,” said Duncan. “Because it doesn’t have as much control over both houses as the former Republican Congress did, it’s going to be very difficult to redirect. It’s like turning an aircraft carrier; you can’t turn it on a dime, it takes a long time.”

In the midst of all these proceedings, the Bush administration still claims that it holds the ultimate authority in determining whether to conduct wiretap surveillance – with or without a warrant. Congressional lawmakers may have to speed up what could be a prolonged legal process if they want to make a significant impact on the program, as the Bush administration may choose to renew it at any time.

“A failure to decide the case could leave it up to the President to decide when and whether to obey the law,” said ACLU associate legal director Ann Beeson to Reuters.

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