I remember recoiling even the very first time I heard the new political brand “War on Terror.” It bothered me immediately that we would have a against an enemy that never goes away. Words have many meanings and there is nothing wrong, per se, with waging a war against hunger or AIDS in an effort to mobilize resources. However, war has a very legal meaning when used in government.
For some reason, driven perhaps by fear, our lawmakers have felt it necessary to modify the laws of the land according to the situation. We have a different set of civil liberties when we are at war than when we are at peace. I can understand the logic of this. Different situations often require different forms of leadership. I may be a consultive leader as a camp counselor; discussing with my campers whether they want to hike or go fishing today, but if a fire breaks out in the cabin I must suddenly become a dictator: “Everyone out! Now!”
President Bush defends his authorization of domestic surveillance by the National Security Administration (NSA) as powers granted him during war. He refers to the 2001 Authorization of Force act of 14 September, 2001 which states that:
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Mr. Bush’s actions violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which creates secret courts in which the government may request a warrant for secret surveillance domestically. The courts have heard over 15,000 requests since 1978 and rejected five. Still Bush claims that FISA doesn’t allow him to be agile enough to chase down terrorists. Except that FISA allows the government to spy first (for 15 days) and ask permission after the fact.
In the President’s eyes, FISA is not sufficient and the 2001 Authorization of Force somehow allows him to spy on American citizens because, well, we’re at war and he’s trying to protect us. Follow the link for the 2001 act above and see if you can’t come up with other clever things that might be allowed, so long as you can claim that they might prevent international terrorism. Maybe it will be easier to think of things that might not be allowed. Is the President above the law so long as he wants to protect us? Shouldn’t he ask the congress for new legislation that would allow the administration to do what he has admitted to doing? I have been saying for sometime that our congress should have been voted out for not doing their duty when they granted Mr. Bush this power in the first place, but even I would not claim that unlimited power to spy on Americans was what the congress thought it was granting the President.
Still, the fundamental flaw is the precedent that there are different laws governing our civil liberties during a time of war. Even while I can see situations where this is a reasonable conclusion, it is particularly dangerous when war is so loosely defined. How do we know when these powers end? Will we regain our civil liberties when there is not one single international terrorist? Does that seem likely? Do we wish to grant the president, not just this president but all future presidents, war-footing powers indefinitely? It is hard enough to determine if a nation has won a war with a signed treaty. It is quite obviously impossible when there is no one with whom to sign a treaty.
The alternative is that while we may very well have wars against hunger, AIDS, drugs and terrorism we cannot let these labels be a cause under which we grant special powers to our government and allow our officials to act as though they are above the law. The current line of reasoning appears to be that if we’re under attack, our fundamental freedoms and rights are less valuable. What, then, are we fighting to protect?