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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Wiretapping threatens domestic freedom

    Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee as the lone witness in a hearing on the authorization of wiretaps without warrants issued by President Bush.

    Gonzales defended his president, as one would expect, asserting that Bush was well within his constitutional authority as commander in chief. Gonzales’ defense was not confined to the powers constitutionally conferred upon the executive office but included the approval to “”use all necessary force to prevent future attacks”” issued by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

    According to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 50 percent of Americans disapprove of government wiretaps in the U.S. without court warrants, as opposed to 46 percent who approve. That statistic suggests there is still much to sort out in the public arena in regard to governmental wiretaps. However, the debate over the legality of wiretapping is nothing new.

    The 1967 case Katz v. United States established that unwarranted wiretapping of U.S. citizens was a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure. More pertinent to the Bush case, however, was the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 in response to a Senate investigation of FBI and CIA wiretapping. The investigation yielded a slew of infringements, leading to the creation of a secret court through which warrants could be obtained for wiretaps.

    Obtaining a warrant from the FISA court is nearly a sure thing as long as the application is not filled out in crayon. Between 1979 and 2004, an astounding 18,742 applications were approved and only four were rejected.

    So why doesn’t the president simply obtain the warrants he needs instead of bypassing the legal route for an illegal one? Why purposefully avoid the process? The answer lies in a disturbing trend toward an all-powerful president, one that has continued through executives of both parties.

    Since the inception of the presidency, the powers of the office have continually expanded, and the executive has plundered much of the constitutional authority dealt to the legislative branch.

    In theory, the legislative branch of government outlines policy that the president is charged with executing (hence, the “”executive branch””). However, administrations from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton have expanded the role of the president as commander in chief, one that was originally only meant to ensure that a civilian was in charge of the military.

    President Harry S. Truman’s “”police action”” in Korea – the Korean War – represented a major step in replacing Congressional power with presidential by eliminating the idea of congressionally declared war. The U.S. Congress has yet to officially declare war since. The presidents since, including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton, have utilized the expanded commander-in-chief role to achieve foreign policy objectives.

    However, that trend has been exacerbated since the current administration assumed control. It has blatantly disregarded the establishment of the FISA court in an attempt to add to the power of an already burgeoning executive office. By disregarding FISA, the president is attempting to push the commander-in-chief’s privileges into the realm of domestic freedom, ignoring constitutional rights – an unprecedented step.

    Defenders of the president say that step is necessary in the ever-evolving war on terror. However, if the war on terror is the problem, an omnipotent presidency with free reign is not the answer. If FISA is truly too slow of a process, it must be changed, but sacrificing our system of checks and balances in the name of a “”war”” with no end in sight leads down a slippery trail. Where do we draw the line in presidential circumvention, trading our freedom for the hope of protection?

    Where does the expansion of the presidency stop if he can illegally listen to citizens’ phone conversations that “”might”” have terrorist connections? One must hope that the day does not come when the president is above the law, but that day may already be upon us.

    Shurid Sen is a political science junior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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