WASHINGTON — In the first weeks and months after 9/11, I am told by a very good source, there was a lot of wishing out loud in the White House Situation Room about expanding the National Security Agency’s ability to instantly monitor phone calls and e-mails between American callers and possible terror suspects abroad. “We talked a lot about how useful that would be,” said this source, who was “in the room” in the critical period after the attacks.
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Well, as the world now knows, the NSA — at the prompting of Vice President Cheney and on official (secret) orders from President Bush — was doing just that. And yet, as I understand it, many of the people in the White House’s own Situation Room — including leaders of the national security adviser’s top staff and officials of the FBI — had no idea that it was happening.
As best I can tell — and this really isn’t my beat — the only people who knew about the NSA’s new (and now so controversial) warrant-less eavesdropping program early on were Bush, Cheney, NSA chief Michael Hayden, his top deputies, top leaders of the CIA, and lawyers at the Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office hurriedly called in to sprinkle holy water on it.
Which presents the disturbing image of the White House as a series of nesting dolls, with Cheney-Bush at the tiny secret center, sifting information that most of the rest of the people around them didn’t even know existed. And that image, in turn, will dominate and define the year 2006 — and, I predict, make it the angriest, most divisive season of political theater since the days of Richard Nixon.
We are entering a dark time in which the central argument advanced by each party is going to involve accusing the other party of committing what amounts to treason. Democrats will accuse the Bush administration of destroying the Constitution; Republicans will accuse the Dems of destroying our security.
Some thoughts on where all of this is headed:
- The president says that his highest duty is to protect the American people and our homeland. And it is true that, as commander-in-chief, he has sweeping powers to, as his oath says, “faithfully execute the office” of president. But the entity he swore to “preserve, protect and defend” isn’t the homeland per se — but the Constitution itself.
- The Patriot Act will be extended, but it’s just the beginning, not the end, of the never-ending argument between the Bill of Rights and national security. The act primarily covers the activities of the FBI; the sheer volume of intelligence-gathering across the government has yet to become apparent, and voters will blanch when they see it all laid before them. The department most likely to get in trouble on this: the Pentagon, which doesn’t have a tradition of limiting inquiries, and which, in the name of protecting domestic military installations, will want to look at everyone.
- If you thought the Samuel Alito hearings were going to be contentious, wait till you see them now. Sen. Arlen Specter, the prickly but brilliant chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that the issue of warrant-less spying by the NSA — and the larger question of the reach of the president’s wartime powers — is now fair game for the Alito hearings. Alito is going to try to beg off but won’t be allowed to. And members who might have been afraid to vote against Alito on the abortion issue might now have another, politically less risky, reason to do so.
- Arguably the most interesting — and influential — Republicans in the Senate right now are the libertarians. They’re suspicious of the Patriot Act and, I am guessing, pivotal in any discussion of the NSA and others' spy efforts. Most are Westerners (Craig, Hagel, Murkowski) and the other is Sen. John Sununu. He is from New Hampshire, which, as anyone who has spent time there understands, is the Wild West of the East Coast. All you have to do is look at its license plate slogan: “Live Free or Die.” It’ll be interesting to see how other nominal small-government conservatives — Sen. George Allen of Virginia comes to mind — handle the issue.
- For months now, I have been getting e-mails demanding that my various employers (Newsweek, NBC News and MSNBC.com) include in their poll questionnaires the issue of whether Bush should be impeached. They used to demand this on the strength of the WMD issue, on the theory that the president had “lied us into war.” Now the Bush foes will base their case on his having signed off on the NSA’s warrant-less wiretaps. He and Cheney will argue his inherent powers and will cite Supreme Court cases and the resolution that authorized him to make war on the Taliban and al-Qaida. They will respond by calling him Nixon 2.0 and have already hauled forth no less an authority than John Dean to testify to the president’s dictatorial perfidy. The “I-word” is out there, and, I predict, you are going to hear more of it next year — much more.
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