Now that the secret is out about warrantless wiretapping by the National
Security Agency, President Bush has been defending its use, but his defense has
been so disingenuous as to inspire little confidence.

“If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we’d like to know why,” said Bush.
Fair enough, but the president decided to bypass the legal mechanism to do that
_ the 11-judge Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Obtaining a warrant from the court is hardly a cumbersome hurdle. Whole years
go by without the court denying a warrant. Most warrants are granted within 24
hours. And if agents have to act immediately, they can do so as long as they
retroactively apply for the warrant within the next three days. Bush’s decision
to short-circuit that court has caused one justice to resign.

Bush insists that NSA eavesdropping is confined to only “a few numbers,” but
published accounts put the number at more than 500 a day.

The president says that the NSA program is regularly reviewed and approved by
top levels of government. Maybe so, but it turns out this wasn’t always so.
According to The New York Times, then-acting Attorney General James Comey
refused to sign off on the program in 2004, necessitating a hurried visit by top
Bush aides to the hospital bed of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft, who did
sign off _ reluctantly, it is reported.

In 2004, two years after he signed off on warrantless wiretaps, a president
who prides himself on plain speaking and straight shooting said, “Anytime you
hear the government talk about wiretap, 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.”

Reminded of that over the weekend, Bush amended his remarks to say he had
been talking about “(ital) roving (endital) wiretaps.” Oh.

Under the expanded Patriot Act, which the president spent Tuesday urging
Congress to renew, FBI agents have the power, without recourse to the courts, to
grant themselves secret subpoenas called National Security letters for a wide
variety of financial records. It turns out that the bureau was issuing 30,000 of
these letters a year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is promising, as a first order of business,
hearings into the president’s view that the government has basically an
unfettered right to eavesdrop. They are overdue. Congress can no longer be
passively acquiescent in these erosions of basic privacy.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at) Distributed by
Scripps Howard News Service,