In a telling sign of President Bush's credibility problems on Capitol Hill, lawmakers hit an impasse last week over a Senate bill (S 2248) to reauthorize something administration officials like to call the "terrorist surveillance program." Who could be against keeping a close watch on terrorists?
If only the issue were that simple. Although there's wide agreement that the calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists overseas should be fair game for interception, such surveillance often ends up tracking what U.S. citizens do in this country. The administration wants to let the attorney general and the director of national intelligence decide when eavesdropping on foreign targets is appropriate, without the need for court warrants or supervision. But some Senate Democrats, sensitive to the 4th Amendment’s limit on searches, want more safeguards against indiscriminate or illegal tapping of Americans' international communications.
It's hard for lawmakers to resist when a president asks for tools that could help protect national security. That's particularly true when an existing tool -- in this case, the 2007 law that gave the administration wide latitude on warrantless wiretaps -- is set to expire soon. This president, however, has earned Congress' resistance by repeatedly using national security and terrorism as a rationale for circumventing the law and ignoring constitutional rights. That's why the modest restraints sought by critics in the Senate are worth fighting for.