scenario, President Bush hoped to use his Monday news conference
to chase off the dogs of criticism as they howl at the perceived
injustice of National Security Agency wiretaps conducted against
individuals with perceived terrorist connections.
was carried out without the court-approved search warrants one
might associate with such scrutiny. The Bush bottom line: It is
sometimes necessary to conduct such activities without a court
see if that reasoning flies with the public.
arises at a dramatic time for Mr. Bush. After months of letting
critics relentlessly flog the war, the White House has spent the
last few weeks defending itself, and it appears to be working.
as the Bush poll numbers squeak upward, along comes a controversy
that threatens not just the president's political capital but
the war itself.
We can argue
whether a president should have the power to unilaterally gather
intelligence for national security purposes, but how did this
story get into the papers in the first place?
was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important
program in a time of war," Mr. Bush said Monday. "The
fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy."
discussion is going to last a long time. Since the horse is out
of the barn, there's probably not much more damage to come from
analyzing the NSA wiretaps as an objective issue.
luck finding that objectivity. Some Democrats are already characterizing
the practice as a brazen violation of law, and some Bush supporters
can be counted on to embrace it just because he did it.
So I've chosen
a test for myself that you may borrow: Would I approve of this
power in the hands of a president I did not vote for in a war
that I did not support?
Yes, I would.
In this war,
the Bush argument is that vital information may be lost by running
every surveillance request through a federal judge under the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act.
This is not
a general snub of the FISA courts, just the establishment of a
bar in certain limited cases where the timely need for intelligence
justifies the shortcut.
president might make a similar judgment call. I wouldn't want
politics to interfere.
to ask in evaluating presidential discretion in these matters
is: Do we trust him not to abuse such a secretive power?
of intelligence-gathering is a moral blank slate, tilted toward
the good or bad by the administration doing it.
are ever scrutinized for sinister reasons, that would deserve
unanimous condemnation. But if the intent is noble and a compelling
case is made for its necessity, that would seem to deserve public
I doubt this
would be so controversial if it had arisen, say, six months after
9-11. But four years have given us the luxury of comfort and,
some would say, complacency.
never be so fervent about a war that we toss all cautions to the
curb. But maybe there's a reason we haven't been attacked again
in the last four years.
are doing some things right. Maybe this surveillance is one of
them. Are we ready to give that up without a shred of evidence
that it has been abused?