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In his recent quotations regarding wiretapping and President Bush's violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich spread inaccurate and misleading information about the issue.
First, Ruedrich justifies not following the law because calls from potential enemies happen too quickly to get a warrant from the special court set up by FISA. This is not true.
FISA allows surveillance to go on for three days without a warrant. At that point, a warrant can be granted for "probable cause." Of the tens of thousands of warrants requested since FISA was passed in 1978, only a handful have been rejected.
If FISA was cumbersome, why didn't the Bush administration seek to amend the law, instead of simply ignoring it? Perhaps because President Bush actually authorized National Security Agency spying shortly after he took office, well before Sept. 11 and two years before the congressional authorization to use force in Iraq, which the administration claims as its legal justification for the spying.
Ruedrich also states that the wiretapping issue is being mischaracterized, since "there are no American-to-American conversations being monitored." A good Rove-style spin, but the fact remains that Americans do not give up their rights simply because they are talking with someone outside the United States. I frequently receive calls from outside the United States. Does that mean no warrant is needed to spy on me and my family?
Mr. Ruedrich's most outrageous comment, however, while it sounds like patriotic common sense, goes beyond misinformation into the realm of Authoritarianism. "Clearly," he says, "the president has the authority to engage in all activities to protect America and American interests."
Excuse me, Mr. Ruedrich, but clearly he does not. In the United States there are very definite limits on what a president can do, and a law passed by Congress, even a Democratic Congress, is still considered law. That's called "Separation of Powers." While President Bush claims that simply being president gives him the right to torture captives and spy on Americans regardless of acts of Congress, that isn't how the Constitution frames it. That is the heart of this issue, and why it is important.
All Authoritarian regimes offer a feeling of paternalistic security in exchange for unquestioning obedience, and they always have their cheerleaders. Their ideal population is a frightened one, who will acknowledge the common sense behind spies, torture and government secrecy while the regime and its clients consolidate their power and privileges.
Terrorism is a real danger, but let's put it in perspective. In 1978 we faced enemies with billions of people, huge armies and tens of thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at us. That was a far greater threat than a network of a few thousand perverted religious fanatics, yet our politicians took pains to protect our rights as well as our security, by passing FISA. Now we cravenly thrill to the militaristic boasting of opportunists who were too busy advancing their careers to go to war themselves. Having ducked the real wars, they invented a phony war - the "War on Terror" - and are leveraging it to funnel our power and our money to themselves and their supporters.
Terrorism is a threat that must be dealt with intelligently and relentlessly, but it is not a war nor should it justify wartime measures, particularly by an administration with a proven record of corruption and incompetence. If we willingly grant them this illegal power to spy on us without warrants, we will soon be granting them more whether we like it or not.
Stuart Cohen is a Juneau resident, businessman and novelist.