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Conservatives rap Bush for spying on Americans

Capitol Hill | January 24 2006

When Al Gore accused President Bush of breaking the law by authorizing domestic wiretapping, Bush's defenders had a ready response.

"Al Gore's hypocrisy knows no bounds," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "If he is going to be the voice of the Democratic Party on national security matters, we welcome it."

Bush's aides, though, might have more difficulty countering the rising tide of criticism from some senior Republicans and influential conservative leaders who are also troubled by the electronic eavesdropping he authorized soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, branded the wiretapping "clearly and categorically wrong" and set a Feb. 6 hearing on "wartime executive power."

Beyond Capitol Hill, prominent conservative groups formed alliances with established liberal organizations to present an unusual united front against the eavesdropping.

For his Martin Luther King Day address at historic Constitution Hall in Washington, Gore was introduced by Bob Barr, a former Georgia congressman who earned a reputation as a right-wing pit bull for his fierce attacks on President Clinton and his relentless championing of conservative causes.

Barr and other leading conservatives have formed a group, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, to press for "substantive oversight hearings" in Congress on Bush's directive _ which was revealed last month _ authorizing warrantless monitoring of phone calls and emails by the National Security Agency.

"When the Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9/11, the federal government was granted expanded access to Americans' private information," Barr said. "However, federal law still clearly states that intelligence agents must have a court order to conduct electronic surveillance of Americans on these shores. Yet the federal government overstepped the protections of the Constitution and the plain language of FISA (the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) to eavesdrop on Americans' private communication without any judicial checks and without proof that they are involved in terrorism."

"This is not a partisan issue," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "It is an issue of safeguarding the fundamental freedoms of all Americans so that future administrations do not interpret our laws in ways that pose constitutional concerns."

Among other members of the new group are Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation and the man who coined the phrase "moral majority," and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Since the controversy over the wiretapping erupted a month ago, some Bush supporters have tried to frame it as just one in a long string of partisan political fights.

In a column headlined "The Paranoid Style in American Liberalism," influential neoconservative William Kristol ridiculed Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Joe Biden of Delaware for criticizing Bush.

And indeed there has been plenty of partisan outcry. In addition to Gore's speech, scores of Democrats have excoriated Bush, while two liberal organizations _ the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights _ filed lawsuits in federal court Tuesday in a bid to end the eavesdropping.

But a host of well-known Republican politicians and conservative commentators have also criticized the president, from Sens. Specter, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dick Lugar of Indiana to columnists George Will and William Safire.

"The president's decision to authorize the NSA's surveillance without the complicity of a court or Congress was a mistake," Will wrote.

Another new alliance of strange bedfellows, calling itself the Liberty Coalition, sponsored Gore's speech and scrambled to construct a Web site.

Dedicated to "preserving the Bill of Rights, personal autonomy and individual privacy," the Liberty Coalition includes dozens of groups from across the political spectrum _ such as the ACLU, Amnesty International, Mothers Against the Draft and Move.on Political Action on the left, and the American Conservative Union, Citizens Against Government Waste, the Free Congress Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union.

The groups are often at one another's throats over a crazy-quilt range of issues, from tax reform, civil liberties and cyber-piracy to budget restraint, gun control and anti-war protest.

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said gun owners should feel especially threatened by Bush's electronic surveillance.

"If the law is not reformed, ordinary Americans' personal information could be swept into all-encompassing federal databases encroaching upon every aspect of their private lives," Gottlieb said.

Bush has insisted that the eavesdropping is being used in very limited cases in which at least one party to the communication is based abroad and suspected of being linked to al-Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist group.

A number of constitutional scholars and privacy experts said the reaction to the domestic wiretapping should be understood within broader cultural, historical and political contexts.

On the cultural front, Americans of all political stripes are struggling to come to grips with an information explosion driven by the digital revolution in computing and other communications technologies.

The debate over electronic eavesdropping comes against the backdrop of ongoing concerns over identity theft, industrial espionage and other forms of digital crime, according to John Soma, professor of computer and technology law at the University of Denver and executive director of its Privacy Foundation.

In 2004, Soma said, lawsuits were filed after it was disclosed that Northwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways had complied with government demands to turn over their passenger lists. Now, he said, there is fresh controversy over Google's refusal to hand over its user logs to help the Justice Department track child pornographers.

"We still don't have a mechanism to ensure that the government's no-fly list is accurate," Soma said. "The only way you can get you're name off it is if you're Senator Kennedy. He calls someone up and says, 'You're not going to get your money next year.' Well, what about the other 280 million Americans?"

Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is among a number of celebrities whose names have inadvertently ended up on the no-fly list the government maintains to prevent suspected terrorists from boarding commercial flights.

Daniel Solove, an information privacy law professor at George Washington University, said Americans' fear of government intrusion dates to the country's founding, but he said it has been dampened since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Certainly, before 9/11 there was a very strong libertarian streak in the Republican Party, with very strong views on privacy, sometimes even stronger than those of the Democrats," Solove said. "One thing that Americans have always bristled at is the government snooping or interfering in their private lives."

That fear of excessive government power has flared up throughout U.S. history, whether it was liberals upset over the suppression of Vietnam War protests or conservatives angry over the FBI's Ruby Ridge assault on an Idaho family in 1992.

On the political front, Republicans have shown increased willingness to break with Bush on key issues in recent months. Before Congress adjourned last month, various groups of Republican senators helped block both a long-term extension of the Patriot Act and loosened enemy interrogation procedures, while GOP House members upset over high government spending forced cuts in appropriations bills.

Peter Brookes, a national security analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Bush has not exceeded his constitutional executive power in authorizing the wiretaps.

"It's very challenging to walk the fine line between preserving civil liberties and protecting national security during wartime," Brookes said.

The electronic eavesdropping is one of a number of measures that have helped prevent another terrorist attack since 9/11, Brookes said, but the new audiotape message from Osama bin Laden is a reminder that the threat still exists.

"As we heard in the tape, this guy's still out there, and he still wants to attack the United States," Brookes said. "We can't let our guard down. One of our advantages over them is our technological advances."

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