December 19, 2005
President George Bush’s defense of his illegal authorization
for the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor phone conversations
and email in the US without court approval is an assertion of
unchecked executive power.
By deciding, after the secret NSA program was revealed in Friday’s
New York Times, to not only acknowledge it, but declare
that it would continue so long as he remained president, Bush
has escalated his administration’s attack on congressional
oversight and the entire Constitutional setup in the US. His defiance
of laws passed by Congress amounts to a bid to establish a form
of presidential dictatorship.
Bush did not even address the controversy surrounding the NSA
spying operation in his prime time speech on Iraq Sunday night.
He merely made an oblique reference to it toward the end of his
remarks, declaring that his responsibility to "protect our
nation" required him to make "tough decisions."
The decision to publicly defend the secret spy program, which
has targeted thousands of American citizens and residents, and
denounce its critics—in effect, accusing them of giving aid
and comfort to terrorists—was taken after intensive deliberations
Friday within the highest circles of the administration. It followed
a successful filibuster in the Senate on Friday that blocked passage
of a bill to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act—the measure
passed within days of the 9/11 attacks that vastly expands the
authority of police and intelligence agencies to spy on the American
With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the
new year, the White House has rejected calls by Senate Democrats
and some Republican senators to extend the act for three months,
in order to work out a compromise that would retain the repressive
essence of the law, while adding minor and largely cosmetic civil
In keeping with the basic modus operandi of the Bush administration,
its response to the political crisis over the Patriot Act, itself
fueled by growing mass opposition to the war in Iraq, is to up
the ante. Bush and his key advisers, such as Vice President Dick
Cheney, do so in the confidence that their critics in the media
and the Democratic Party are themselves too cowardly and too compromised
by their own complicity to mount any serious opposition.
They calculate that by going on the offensive, they can once
again expose the impotence of the Democrats and further undermine
any Congressional oversight of the actions of the White House.
Bush, in an interview Friday evening on the Public Broadcasting
System’s evening news broadcast, refused to affirm or deny
the existence of the NSA domestic spying operation. Meanwhile,
Cheney and Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card were meeting
with members of Congress to browbeat them into reversing their
votes on the Patriot Act.
On Saturday morning, Bush took the unusual step of broadcasting
his weekly radio address live from the White House. He denounced
those who had voted to block the Patriot Act for "irresponsibly"
undermining the "war on terror." Then he acknowledged
that he had authorized the NSA spying program in the weeks after
9/11 and had reauthorized it more than thirty times since. He
claimed that he had the authority to do so based both on the authorization
of force resolution passed overwhelmingly by Congress in the days
after 9/11 and his inherent war-time powers as commander in chief.
Bush denounced the leaking of information on the NSA program
and its publication as an illegal breach of classified information,
implicitly threatening the New York Times with prosecution.
He said that he would reauthorize the program "for as long
as our nation faces a continuing threat from Al Qaeda and related
Aside from these sweeping assertions of quasi-dictatorial powers,
Bush defended his actions by pointing out that he had briefed
key leaders in Congress "more than a dozen times on this
authorization and the activities conducted under it." The
implication was clear: Democratic leaders who now sought to criticize
the unlawful spying were themselves complicit. They were now complaining
only because the program had been revealed to the public.
Among the Democrats who were informed of the NSA program were
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence
Committee and now the minority leader in the House of Representatives,
and Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the vice chairman of the Senate
News of the secret NSA program and Bush’s defiant defense
of his role in authorizing it have sparked protests from congressional
Democrats and a number of Republicans. The New York Times,
the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have
all published editorials acknowledging that Bush broke the law.
However, the most any of them has demanded is the holding of congressional
hearings. Not one has suggested that Bush should be impeached
for his crimes.
That Bush has committed crimes, violating both the Constitution
and specific statutes, is beyond dispute. The NSA is a massive
and highly secretive spy agency whose legal mandate is to intercept
and monitor the electronic communications of foreign governments
and organizations. It is explicitly barred from spying on telephone
and other communications that originate in the US, unless it first
obtains a warrant to do so from a secret court established to
deal with foreign intelligence-gathering.
The Foreign Intelligence Security Court was established by
a 1978 law (the Foreign Intelligence Security Act—FISA) passed
in response to revelations of massive spying by the NSA and other
intelligence and military agencies on civil rights activists and
opponents of the Vietnam War. FISA explicitly bars the kind of
warrant-less wiretaps and intercepts first authorized by Bush
in late 2001.
Such police-state practices are proscribed, moreover, by the
Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable
searches and seizures.
Bush, however, has advanced the position that the "war
on terror" gives him the power, as the commander in chief,
to take virtually any measures unilaterally, without having to
obtain congressional authorization. From a constitutional standpoint,
this assertion of unchecked war-time powers is an Orwellian distortion
of the powers actually granted the president by the Constitution.
That founding document declared the president to be the commander
in chief of the military so as to assert the supremacy
of the civilian, elected authorities over the military. The Bush
administration has sought to turn this democratic principle into
its opposite, portraying the president as an imperial commander
in chief of the nation as a whole.
As the Washington Post pointed out on Sunday, "On
occasion the Bush administration has explicitly rejected the authority
of the courts and Congress to impose boundaries on the power of
the commander in chief, describing the president’s war-making
powers in legal briefs as 'plenary’—a term defined
as 'full,’ 'complete,’ and 'absolute.’"
On this basis, the Bush White House has carried out an unprecedented
assault on democratic rights, from the military detention of American
citizens as "enemy combatants," to the establishment
of military tribunals, to abductions, secret prisons, and the
use of torture against detainees.
The NSA operation is only one part of a vast expansion of government
spying on the American people. All of the illegal practices against
political dissidents that became notorious during the Vietnam
War period have been revived—and expanded.
Only recently it was revealed that the Pentagon is overseeing
a data base on alleged "threats," which includes those
who engage in peaceful and legal protests against the Iraq war
and military recruiting at high schools and campuses.
The Patriot Act allows the FBI to force banks, hospitals, libraries,
book stores and similar institutions to hand over information
on citizens and residents who have been charged with no crime.
Given the fact that the threshold for obtaining warrants from
the FISA court is extremely low, and the court has refused only
a handful of such requests, generally granting them within a few
hours, the decision of the Bush administration to proceed independently
indicates that it deliberately sought to establish a precedent
for unchecked presidential powers.
It also indicates an intention to target people so clearly
without terrorist links that warrants might be difficult to obtain
even from the compliant FISA court—including Americans whose
only "crime" is political opposition to the war and
other government policies.
By the logic of his arguments and actions, there is nothing
to prevent Bush, as commander in chief, from suspending Congress
altogether and ruling by decree. Under such conditions, the wire
taps and data bases would be used to round up political opponents
The war on terror is, and always has been, a propaganda façade
for launching military actions abroad and attacking democratic
rights at home. It is a mantra behind which American imperialism
carries out its drive to establish global hegemony. That it has
little to do with defending the American people against catastrophes
was established conclusively by the incompetence and indifference
of the government to the plight of New Orleans and the other Gulf
Coast regions devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
The war on terror was announced by Bush in the immediate aftermath
of 9/11 and accepted uncritically by the entire political and
media establishment. Never declared by Congress, it was and remains
a "war" of indefinite duration that embraces the entire
globe, including the territory of the United States and its inhabitants.
As Bush reiterated in his radio address on Saturday, this "first
war of the 21st century" has as one of its "most critical
battlefronts... the home front." In other words, Bush’s
unchecked powers as commander in chief apply within the borders
of the US as well as without.
This assertion of essentially dictatorial powers is the outcome
of a protracted decay of the foundations of American democracy.
The Bush administration itself, it must never be forgotten, was
the product of a criminal conspiracy and a stolen election. Bush
was installed in 2000 through the suppression of votes and the
diktat of a Republican majority on the Supreme Court.
That watershed event in the disintegration of constitutional
and democratic processes was prepared and preceded by a high-level
conspiracy to effect a political coup d’état against
the Clinton White House, in the form of the Monica Lewinsky sex
scandal and the witch-hunt led by Independent Counsel Kenneth
Then came the still unexplained events of September 11, 2001.
A veritable mountain of evidence has emerged pointing to the likelihood
that those who carried out the attacks on New York and Washington
operated under the protection of intelligence and law enforcement
The murky events of 9/11 provided the pretext for launching
the "war on terror," whose main result has been the
invasion and occupation of Iraq—a war launched in the basis
of lies against a country that had no connection to Al Qaeda or
9/11. The quagmire in Iraq has, in turn, become the justification
for further military interventions and ever more sweeping attacks
on democratic rights within the United States.
The crimes of Bush’s administration not only match, but
exceed those of Richard Nixon’s. In 1973, Congress responded
to Nixon’s lawless actions by initiating impeachment proceedings,
charging Nixon with breaking the law with his secret war in Cambodia
and his authorization of illegal wiretaps and searches against
his political opponents. Today, the erosion of American democracy
is so far advanced that similar action against Bush is virtually
Why are there no calls for Bush’s impeachment? One could
easily draw up an indictment that met the constitutional threshold
of "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Why, amid the hand-wringing in sections of the press and among
some politicians, are there no demands for the release of the
NSA records? Who was targeted? How many? No section of the political
establishment or the media wants such information released to
the public because they know it would include prominent individuals
in political life, including members of Congress, as well as artists,
intellectuals and others who have no conceivable connection to
Bush’s open defense of illegality and assertion of quasi-dictatorial
powers bring the political crisis in the US to the boiling point.
His defiance of Congress, the law and the Constitution are the
culmination of a record of criminality. But the Bush administration
has concluded, with good reason, that it will face no serious
opposition from any section of the political establishment.
Every official US institution is implicated in the conspiracy
against the democratic rights of the American people. The mass
media has systematically functioned to propagate the administration’s
lies and cover up for its crimes. The New York Times, in
its article revealing the secret NSA spying operation, admitted
that it had withheld its report for a full year, after meeting
with White House officials who demanded that it suppress the information.
The Democratic Party, from its refusal to expose the conspiracy
behind the Clinton impeachment, to its acceptance of a stolen
election in 2000, to its collusion in covering up the facts surrounding
9/11, to its collaboration in the "war on terror" and
the invasion and occupation of Iraq has demonstrated conclusively
its indifference to democratic rights. Whatever its tactical differences
with the Bush administration, the Democratic Party fundamentally
defends the drive of US imperialism for global domination, with
all of its brutal implications for the American people and the
What working people confront is an unprecedented assault on
their democratic rights. Serious resistance can come only through
the independent political mobilization of the working class, outside
and independently of Congress and the two capitalist parties.