New, Troubling Questions Over Bush Domestic Spying

Newsweek adds a new troubling twist to the controversy over the Bush administration’s warrantless spying. It reports that even then-Attorney General John Ashcroft would not authorize the spying sought by the administration:

On one day in the spring of 2004, White House chief of staff Andy Card and the then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales made a bedside visit to John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, who was stricken with a rare and painful pancreatic disease, to try—without success—to get him to reverse his deputy, Acting Attorney General James Comey, who was balking at the warrantless eavesdropping. Miffed that Comey, a straitlaced, by-the-book former U.S. attorney from New York, was not a “team player” on this and other issues, President George W. Bush dubbed him with a derisive nickname, “Cuomo,” after Mario Cuomo, the New York governor who vacillated over running for president in the 1980s. (The White House denies this; Comey declined to comment.)

There’s a few things troubling in this paragraph from a piece that tries to present both sides (see below): (1) Because Comey wouldn’t go along with the President’s desires he was basically labeled by the President a Democrat within his heart. So, if you don’t agree with everything the President says you MUST be a closet Democrat? (2) It’s clear it was no dice when the Bush administration went to James Comey so the administration tried to end-run him and go higher up. (3) When even its ATTORNEY GENERAL REFUSED, the administration then did what what it sought to do anyway…without going to a court.

If this was so justified in doing as warrantless wiretaps, then, why did they bother to go to Comey or Ashcroft in the first place?

What is chilling is that it is, on a much smaller scale, reminiscent of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal during the Saturday Night Massacre. We are not pointing this out to draw parallels in this case between the two actual scandals. Rather, Nixon couldn’t get officials to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox so he kept asking until found one who would. So the issue here is: was there truly an intent to seek an opinion and get permission or was it decided that, no matter what, the President and his closest advisors would decide what was legal?

What could this have been that even John Ashcroft — who could never be accused of being soft on terrorism and not striving to give the government any conceivable tool to combat it, even if existing laws had to be changed — refused to sign on to it? Newsweek fleshes this out:

In a perfect democracy trying to strike a balance between civil liberties and national security, there would be reasoned, open debate between representatives of the different branches of government. But human nature and politics rarely work in neat and orderly ways. In moments of crisis, presidents, if they believe in executive power (and most inevitably do), will do almost anything to protect the country. Only after the crisis ebbs does the debate begin over the proper means and ends, and by then the people and their representatives are often shocked to find out what the president has done in the name of protecting them. More than four years after September 11, America finds itself debating some of the oldest issues in our history: how to balance liberty and security, how much power we should cede to the White House and whether what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. dubbed “The Imperial Presidency” amid Watergate is a good thing, a bad thing or something in between. That the war on terror is unconventional and seemingly endless adds to the difficulty and raises the stakes.

After 9/11, President Bush and his top advisers faced, they believed, a mortal yet invisible enemy. The mightiest armed forces in the world were not effective against such a shadowy foe. Nor were human spies much help. Movies and novels notwithstanding, the CIA had rarely (if ever) penetrated a terrorist cell. America’s one true weapon was technology. Spy satellites and the massive computers of the National Security Agency (so secret it was nicknamed “No Such Agency”) were able to pluck telephone and e-mail conversations out of the air and ether. The NSA could cock a giant ear to America’s enemies — and, ideally, overhear their plots.

The problem in 2006 is going to be this: this administration has so damaged its credibility on so many other issues that its protestations about “trust us” doesn’t cut it with many Americans anymore. It’s difficult for non-governmental, let alone government, individuals to regain credibility. It must be re-earned. And it’s hard to regain it if the answer is “trust me” or “we can’t tell you” or “if you ask any more you’ll be helping the terrorists.”

It’s no surprise that Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer would call for more Senate investigations. But now conservative William Safire has broken ranks with the Bush administration on this issue.

Is this the start of defections from Republican libertarians — the kind of Republicans who embraced the ideals of the late Barry Goldwater, versus the Bush wing that, despite its rhetoric, comes down on the side of big GOP government with expanded executive powers?

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush defends his actions:

“This NSA program is an important program protecting Americans,” Bush said after visiting wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. “We’re at war.”

Bush said the program limited to “a few numbers” called by known al Qaeda members outside the United States.

“If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we’d like to know why,” Bush said.

Fair enough: but it still doesn’t answer the core question as to the legality of what was done and WHY it was done…and why even Ashcroft wouldn’t sanction it.

Those who assume that this administration has had a great track record on its explanations to Congress, the American people, its own GOP elected representatives (not just on the war but during Hurricane Katrina), then what Bush is offering — an ASSURANCE is enough. Those who think the administration’s track record has been flawed or downright poor will demand assurances.

But someone can still care deeply about pulling-out-all stops in the war on terrorism and demand a better explanation — and expect a bipartisan clamor for some answers. There will be some who’ll now label Ashcroft, Safire (quoted profusely and favorably by conservative talk show hosts, pundits and bloggers for years), and Comey softies in the war on terrorism or — perhaps worse to them — disloyal or not really Republicans. Will that feeling be the majority stance within the GOP? Or will 2006 see the administration increasingly finding itself fighting two wars…in Iraq and on the home front…heatedly trying to shore up support within in its own party for what is clearly an expansion of executive power?