The current uproar over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of American citizens isn't about the infringement of civil liberties -- at least, not wholly. It is disturbing that our government is spying on us with little or no justification, but the real issue concerns how this has been done. It's all about Presidential power, and Bush's flaunting of the law and the Constitution.
Here's the thing. Under current law, the administration can spy on anyone it wants, as long as it receives a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. As a semi-Libertarian and general advocate of civil liberties, this bothers me, but it's the law. All the administration has to do is apply for a warrant, and 99 times out of 100 they get it. They can even apply for the warrant post-action, which means they can wiretap first and ask permission later. And it's all legal.
But this carte blanche approach to the issue wasn't good enough for the Bushies. No, they wanted to eavesdrop without asking permission of anyone -- even if they were pretty much guaranteed approval if they asked. The Bushies, in performing their post-9/11 wiretaps, didn't seek the required warrants from the FISA court. They broke the law.
That's the deal. It's not what they did; it's that they broke the law to do it. And, for a President, breaking the law is an impeachable offense.
It's pretty cut and dried, at least to me and most knowledgeable observers. The Bushies see it different, of course. Bush and his legal advisors claim that Congress' 2001 joint resolution authorizing the use military force against al Queda gave the President broad powers to combat the enemy, including the ability to conduct covert, warrantless surveillance. Further, they point to the directive in the Constitution that states "the president shall be commander-in-chief," which they say gives Bush virtually unlimited authority on issues related to national security. And, in our supposed post-9/11 world, virtually everything has something to do with national security.
In essence, Bush claims that his responsibility as a wartime commander-in chief gives him implicit (if not explicit) authority to do whatever he wants to do, with no oversight and no consequences. Laws don't matter; to Bush and his staff, Presidential authority takes precedence over any and all laws. This is the very definition of the Imperial Presidency, the President as Monarch and Supreme Ruler. The loyal opposition likes to refer to Bush as King George, and they're not far off the mark.
Then there's the whole conceit of Bush as a "wartime" President. Yes, our troops are at war in Iraq, but that's not the war the administration is talking about. The Bush administration and a malleable media have done their best to convince the country that we're "at war" with terrorists, or Islamic jihadists, or somebody, it's not clear who. Forget the fact that the average American feels no effects of this so-called war, nor has made any sacrifices in that regard; by pretending we're in this amorphous war, the Bushies can justify practically any action as a necessary consequence of fighting the war. And, to further benefit the powermongers in the administration, this "war" against an invisible enemy is so amorphous that it need never end. We'll be at war as long as the administration needs, and to whatever extent best benefits them. It's a sham, and one in which the media are willing conspirators.
The consolidation of Presidential power, of course, is actually counter to the intentions of our Founding Fathers. Bush and his "original intent" followers would do well to remember the framers' deep distrust of excessive executive power, and the checks and balances they built into the Constitution. The original intent of the framers, of course, was to rebel against the oppressive power of a king. That's why they devised the separation of powers inherent in our tripartite government, and severely limited the powers of the executive branch. The President may have executive status, but only Congress can declare war. And the legislative branch exists not just to interpret laws, but also to check the power of the other two branches -- including and most especially the executive.
While this consolidation of Presidential power is claimed as a necessary precaution during wartime, the roots of the new Imperial Presidency pre-date the war in Iraq, and the 9/11 attacks. From the first days of the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney was doing everything in his power to rebuild an all-powerful executive branch. It's really a response to the restrictions on Presidential power enacted in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Cheney was there for Nixon's last days, then served as President Ford's chief of staff, where he chaffed at the new legislative limits placed on the executive branch. Now Cheney and his staff are trying to undo thirty years of governmental reform, and return the country to the excesses that marked and marred the Nixon Presidency. In Cheney's mind, the Presidency must have absolute power, with no possible oversight from the legislative and judicial branches of government. Cheney wants the President to be King, the Constitution be damned.
We are at a turning point in our democracy. If Bush is allowed to continue his consolidation of power, that power will become unlimited, and the American experiment will fail. Bush and Cheney and their dreams of an omnipotent Imperial Presidency must be stopped, and Bush must be brought to account for his flaunting of the law and the Constitution. Impeachment is what's called for, and then a return to the true tripartite government that our founders intended. Anything less will ensure that American democracy will be supplanted by a royal dictatorship -- and this cannot be allowed.
But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.