Saturday, December 17, 2005

Is the Secrecy Warranted?

Big news this morning: Bush has confirmed that he authorized secret domestic wiretaps after declaring last night on Newshour that he "do[es] not discuss ongoing intelligence operations to protect the country." In another GSAVE development, Democratic senators successfully led a filibuster against the Patriot Act renewal vote yesterday, with four Republicans joining them against the cloture movement. Coincidence? It's tough to say. After all, the WaPo reports that "members of Congress had been notified of [the warrantless wiretaps] more than a dozen times," so at least some of them shouldn't have been surprised. But headlines like "Shocked Lawmakers Demand Spy Program Probe" and John McCain's revelation in an NPR interview yesterday that he had not previously known of the program indicate that many were in the dark until the New York Times broke the story.

And that's a problem, because we all know how dedicated this administration is to strengthening its own hand relative to the other branches. Controversial anti-terror measures with the potential to trample Americans' civil liberties need skeptical oversight to ensure against abuse. Otherwise, we leave our most sensitive national security duties to a small cadre of ideologues who are absolutely convinced they are right, and who may remain unaware of the impropriety of their actions until the media points it out all over front pages nationwide.

Getting back to the current cloak-and-dagger business, here's another question:
what was the rationale for keeping these warrantless wiretaps secret when the Patriot Act has been very public from the start, warts and all? Bush has not explained the difference between this executive order and the Patriot Act's Section 215, which allows the government to search people's financial, medical, and other records without notifying them. If the latter's efficacy isn't compromised by being on the public record, why would the former's? This looks like yet another Bush PR blunder, because he probably could have snuck the program into the Act without much argument in the months following 9/11. Not that secret wiretapping would have been any more of a good idea then, but we could have at least had a public debate about its merits instead of just now hearing about it.