Senate Majority Project

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Another RNC Must Read... (Between the Lines)

RNC’s Favorite Editorial Board Backed Review of Wiretaps

Scratching for anybody to back President Bush’s unilateral secret order to tap Americans’ phone calls, the RNC pointed to a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled (not making this up) “Thank you for Wiretapping.” That the Journal supported the Bush position, and largely echoed his arguements, is not surprising. What is surprising is the degree to which it did at the expense of its own editorial integrity.

In a 2002 editorial headlined “No License to Spy” the Journal editorial board wrote: “We consider ourselves civil libertarians, as wary as anyone of government power,” then went on to explain that the critics of the Patriot Act were “over the top” because,
“FBI agents will not suddenly be able to snoop into American bedrooms. U.S. officials who want a wiretap warrant under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will still have to convince a court that there is probable cause to believe the target is an agent of a foreign power or terrorist organization.” [No License to Spy, 20 November 2002]
We now know that this isn’t true. President Bush, with the flimsiest legal justification, ordered wiretaps without the FISA review in which the Journal recently placed so much faith.

The Journal explained away Bush’s actions much the same way the president did yesterday -- by pointing to the war on terror. The paper has frequently argued for broad presidential power (at least when it does not affect corporations). However, it has also repeatedly argued for oversight of the power. Only days after 9-11, the Journal editorial pages again announced, “We count ourselves as stalwart civil libertarians,” and explained its support for greater cooperation between agencies saying,
“The best way to reassure people is to ensure our intelligence and law enforcement agencies at some point make their case to some outside authority. That means defining who they are targeting as well as paying more attention to the specifics of accountability. … And we have no objection to putting a sunset provision on any expanded powers, so they can be reviewed by Congress to see if they've been abused.” [Taking Liberties 25 September 2001]

Amazingly the Journal’s editorial position was more suspicious of presidential powers against terrorism when the rubble of the World Trade Center was literaly still settling just blocks away from the paper’s New York headquarters than it is today. Given a chance to draw the line it has so often drawn before, an editorial board which recently proclaimed that “Every free society needs civil-libertarian watchdogs” offered little more than weak apologies.

The most troubling aspect of the Bush orders is the shameless and brazen nature used to exploit presidential power. Bush even claimed that his own judgment and oath of office is enough to check what he appears to see as virtually unlimited power. The Journal editorial board, civil libertarians all, have rolled over and thanked him for it.