This weekend several hundred cadets at the United States Air Force Academy heard a defense of wire tapping from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Air Force Academy has been training cadets for over five decades to become generals, astronauts, pilots and leaders of the Air Force. It has a proud record. Cadets have very little freedom during their four-year sentence, as some call it. Several cadets and alumni I know feel that losing those freedoms for four years gives them a reason to fight for and maintain the freedoms that we have in America. They understand on an experiential and gut level what it is like to live without freedom.
Attorney General Gonzales explained the Bush Administration's views on a case that was decided against the administration by a federal court judge in Detroit. The case brought by the ACLU before Judge Anna Diggs Taylor was in reference to a secret order signed by President Bush that gave the National Security Agency the ability to listen to conversations within the United States without obtaining a warrant either before or after the wiretap. The National Security Agency has been listening in on foreign conversations for years. Yet this order pertained to conversations in the United States. President Bush signed the order and the wire tapping commenced. Most legal scholars considered it unconstitutional and the court agreed. In mid-August of this year, Judge Taylor said that, ''there are no hereditary kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution.''
Advertisement - story continues below
We have been down this road before when the Executive Branch in the 50s, 60s and 70s decided they had to ''protect'' Americans from the questionable citizens of the United States, including civil rights leaders, community organizers and even a few members of Congress. As a result, Congress wrote specific guidelines into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in order to protect our rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.
Currently, the appellate court issued a stay and the government is trying to get the case dismissed. It is clear that the Bush Administration is data mining and listening to journalists, lawyers and others all in the so-called ''interest'' of national security. Fine, but what about a warrant? The FISA court is set up to issue warrants for wiretapping. One of the 11 judges on the FISA court resigned a year ago. U.S. District Judge James Robertson had doubts about the warrentless wiretaps and felt that it put the court's work in jeopardy.
Both Gonzales and Vice President Cheney have attacked the judge's ruling. Cheney said on Friday that the ruling was, ''an indefensible act of judicial overreaching.'' On Saturday the attorney general referred to the initial authority to use force in Iraq as the basis for the warrantless wiretaps. ''We believe the president has the authority under the authorization of military force and inherent authority of the Constitution to engage in this sort of program, but we want to supplement that authority.''
That is a stretch by anyone's legal reasoning. But this isn't the first time the Bush Administration has stretched. They felt they could keep enemy combatants in Guantanamo forever and the Supreme Court did not agree. Even enemy combatants are entitled to a trial.
Advertisement - story continues below
Ironically, Gonzales, like many administration officials, tries to put a constitutional face on the unconstitutional. According to Associated Press reporter Chase Squires who was at the Air Force academy for the speech, Gonzales defended the Patriot Act and the handling of detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. ''To achieve victory at the cost of eroding civil liberties would not really be a victory. We cannot change the core identity of our nation and claim success,'' he said.
Even if you are 100 percent behind the Patriot Act you would have to admit that it erodes civil liberties. The idea of being able to wiretap Americans without a warrant is not just an ''erosion,'' it is the end of privacy as we know it. One blogger called it ''administration double speak,'' another, ''one nation under wiretaps.'' What ever you call it, my guess is that the courts will eventually call it illegal and the new Congress will as well.
The Air Force Academy is composed of some of the best and the brightest of our young men and women. The first year at the academy they take an oath of honor, ''We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.'' The attorney general attended the Air Force Academy but never graduated according his biography. Had Attorney General Gonzales graduated from the academy he might not have been so blithe in his defense of Bush Administration policy.