Who cares about the Constitution, anyway? It’s only a flammable 218-year-old document with the signatures of a bunch of white property-owning dead guys. And “supreme law of the land”? Yeah, whatever, guidelines is more like it.
This seems to be the prevailing consensus at the Bush White House. For a robust executive who has assumed nearly unlimited power in a post-9/11 world, the Constitution often gets in the way.
In December 2005, when news the Bush administration had authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct warantless wiretapping on Americans’ international calls and e-mails, Vice President Dick Cheney was quick to come out in defense of the president.
“It was true during the Cold War, as well as I think what is true now, the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy,” Vice President Cheney was quoted saying in the New York Times.
In layman’s terms, in times of war the president should not necessarily have to abide or be “impaired” by the Constitution. For national security purposes, the president should be allowed to do whatever he pleases, breaking the supreme law of the land included. Such are the privileges of being a wartime president, according to the vice president, and, until recently, the Bush administration has followed this philosophy to the T.
Beginning this year, however, the Bush administration unexpectedly announced it would soon be abandoning the eavesdropping surveillance program it began after Sept. 11. The surveillance program bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which established that the NSA and FBI could eavesdrop on suspected spies and terrorists within the country – on the condition that they seek a warrant issued by a federal judge in secret hearings before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
After Sept. 11, having been newly endowed with wartime powers, President Bush decided the FISA act no longer applied to his administration. By not enforcing the court approval process, the president opted to discard a law which had been a landmark compromise between civil libertarians and the intelligence community.
The illegal wiretapping scheme is just another example of the Bush administration’s open contempt for civil liberties and the rule of law. This issue has sparked much needed debate on what constitutes a president’s wartime powers and whether actions by the Bush administration have sparked a constitutional crisis.
An ongoing national debate about the unconstitutional surveillance program might have been responsible for this recent change of heart in the Bush administration. Mounting legal challenges against the NSA program, coupled with the ascent of Democrats thirsty for investigations, have also been cited as reasons for the change in policy.
Moreover, the fact that this decision came before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ testimony at a judiciary committee hearing regarding the NSA program has some analysts speculating that the Bush administration’s decision is an attempt to safeguard itself from further criticism. On this subject, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer told the New York Times he did not think the timing was coincidental and that the Bush administration “knew it had a very real problem, and they’re trying to deflect it.”
As one who has acquired an appreciation for the Constitution that goes beyond thinking of it as mere guidelines drafted by some 18th century dudes with too much time on their hands, I would like to see the Bush administration held responsible for having broken the law for the past five years.
I understand we are in a time of war, but this should not give the president authority to treat the document underpinning the legal framework of this country as toilet paper.
Luci Storelli-Castro is a senior political science and philosophy major. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.