Conservatives rap Bush for spying on Americans


    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.”