Richard Reeves

President Bush: I Am the Law!

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- This is where I grew up, and this is where I learned about politicians and the law, so nothing surprises me in President Bush's declarations that he has the right and duty to ignore laws about spying on his fellow citizens.

Frank Hague was the mayor here when I was in grammar school. He was the mayor for 30 years but, good or bad as he was, mostly bad, he will always be remembered for one thing. It happened when he wanted to get working papers for a couple of 14-year-olds, and an official told him that was not legal. You had to be 16. Said Hague: "Listen, here is the law: I am the law!"

President Nixon said the same thing about secret bombings and burglaries: "It's legal if the president says it's legal."

Now George W. Bush is saying he is the law because he is the only president we have. He has, in fact, become a Nixonian figure, alone in the White House talking to the same people day after day, and fewer and fewer of them. He does not like to talk to members of Congress because he might let slip what he is actually doing in Iraq or listening in on phone calls. He likes to appoint judges, but he does not want to listen to them because they might make him stop doing things he wants to do.

What, then, is the purpose of having judges forbidden to judge? That was the question raised by the resignation of federal Judge James Robertson from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body charged with issuing warrants for electronic eavesdropping on the domestic calls and messages of Americans. He quit after it was revealed, by The New York Times, that wiretapping and other surveillance was going ahead, by order of the president, without warrants of any kind. Robertson's role, unwittingly, was a cover for breaking the law.

All administrations, in my experience, lie on some matters of national security. Then they lie about the lying, as President Bush did a year ago when he said: "Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretaps, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."

Not true. Like Nixon, who preferred to be in a circle of one, Bush can't stand the idea of governance slowed and scrutinized by checks and balances. This president has now broken the silence and some of the deception by announcing that he authorized warrantless eavesdropping -- and claims that his deception saved the lives of thousands of American lives threatened by new acts of terrorism.

That may be true. These are times that try men's souls -- and times that are changing at exponential speed. Terrorism is real and frightening, and the president is charged with the responsibility of protecting his people. This is a different kind of war and has to be fought in different ways, particularly when it is waged, on both sides, by exploiting quantum leaps in communication technology.

But the United States cannot win (and preserve the individual freedoms that made this a great nation) by relying on one man or a few dozen. These latest revelations of technique, danger and deception show that the time has come for national debate and dialogue about many dangers, not on more secrecy and lying. The White House, I assume, is doing what it thinks necessary -- legal or not -- but the Congress is not, either because it is being lied to or is derelict in its duties.

The times call for a robust debate by elected officials everywhere, particularly in the Senate and House, on the checks and balances necessary to fight this war without giving up the freedoms we are trying to protect. Otherwise, the United States will continue its drift toward becoming a lawless police state with regular elections.

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