By secretly authorizing the National Security Agency to wiretap the phones of American citizens, President Bush has demonstrated his utter contempt for the laws that have guided his predecessors in times of great national peril. This revelation – coming one day after the president reluctantly and belatedly acceded to congressional demands that the government cease its abuse of prisoners – underscores the lawlessness and moral bankruptcy of this White House. According to the New York Times, even employees of the National Security Agency itself refused to follow the president’s order to break the law.

This administration has repeatedly claimed the authority to exercise sweeping powers on a scale unheard of since the days of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, without public debate or congressional assent. The abuses of that era caused Congress to enact the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which governs surveillance for intelligence purposes within the United States. That Act expressly prohibits intelligence surveillance by any means which it does not authorize. At no time during Congress’ consideration of the broad anti-terrorism authorities contained in the PATRIOT Act – not in the original debate in 2001, not in the intervening four years, and not in the ongoing debate about its reauthorization – has the president requested this new authority for the NSA. Instead, the president’s secret and unlawful grant of power to the NSA makes the current debate on the PATRIOT Act almost irrelevant.

We stand with the 9/11 Commission and welcome and encourage a full and open discussion regarding intelligence and surveillance authorities, including thorough oversight hearings by the relevant congressional committees, to ensure that the best policies are in place to protect Americans from terrorist attack. If the president believed this power was necessary, he should have sought Congressional authorization. But the law and Constitution are clear: the National Security Agency does not have this authority and the president cannot give it to them with the stroke of his pen.

Morton H. Halperin is a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress.

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