Bush’s abuse of power stirs debate

President Bush has made broad use of his executive powers: authorizing warrantless wiretaps, collecting telephone records on millions of Americans, holding suspected terrorists overseas without legal protections. His administration even is considering using the military to patrol the U.S. border.

Congress is on notice from the president that he will not enforce parts of legislation he believes interfere with his constitutional authority.

These are extraordinary times, for sure, and the president says he is acting to safeguard the country. But Democrats and some Republicans, along with human rights activists and legal scholars, suggest Bush has gone too far in stretching presidential powers.

“I do think the president has pushed the envelope,” said Georgetown University political scientist Stephen J. Wayne. “He seems so determined for another act of terrorism not to occur on his watch that he has forgotten the constitutional protections that most Americans value as highly as they value their security.”

Bush is using a variety of techniques and strategies to maximize his power _ at the expense of Congress, some say. It’s a course, critics suggest, that both he and Vice President Dick Cheney have pursued since they took office in January 2001.

Administration officials insist they have acted within constitutional limits, citing added flexibility that comes during a time of war.

The disclosure last week that the National Security Agency is building a data base of domestic telephone numbers has touched off an intense debate about whether the administration and phone companies are undermining people’s privacy rights.

Expressions of concern came from some prominent Republicans, including House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and added to earlier questions about the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping program.

These once-covert programs pose potential trouble for the president’s nomination of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden to be CIA director. Hayden oversaw both programs as NSA director from 1999-2005.

“Everything that the agency has done has been lawful,” Hayden asserted last week as he visited the offices of the senators who will vote on his nomination.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says his committee will scrutinize Hayden’s role in both the NSA’s phone data bank and the eavesdropping program.

Former CIA Director Stansfield Turner is among those critical of the administration’s eavesdropping program and Hayden’s oversight.

“I’m concerned that he had a role in wiretapping American telephones without warrants. I interpret that, if it happened, as against the law. Apparently, the president and others interpret it otherwise,” said Turner, who was CIA chief in the Carter administration.

In projecting his powers widely, Bush has made extensive use of statements that accompany the signing of a bill into law. These statements claim a presidential prerogative not to enforce parts of the legislation that he deems to encroach on executive authority. He has issued hundreds of such statements.

Among provisions he has challenged is a requirement to give detailed reports to Congress about his use of the Patriot Act and about a ban on torture.

“The president apparently believes, based on a number of recent statements and policy directives, that anything he approves is automatically legal,” said Stephen Cimbala, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies national security issues.

Because Bush has not vetoed any bill sent to him, Congress has not had the chance to challenge such pre-emptive assertions of presidential authority.

“It undercuts the whole legislative process of veto and override,” said James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton White House. He said Clinton issued such signing statements, but only rarely.

“Concentrating that kind of authority in one person is dangerous,” said Steinberg, now dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt both suspended various constitutional protections, claiming all-consuming wars as the reason.

President Kennedy drew criticism for ordering the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He blamed the disaster on poor planning and lack of reliable intelligence from the CIA, just as the Bush White House would do when U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

President Nixon was accused of widespread abuse of the Constitution in the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign rather than face certain impeachment.

Human rights leaders continue to decry the treatment of detainees in U.S. prison camps in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and allegations of secret CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe.

Criticism that the administration is undermining privacy rights of Americans has failed to generate wide opposition from the general public. In an ABC-Washington Post poll taken last Thursday, 63 percent of the 502 Americans asked said it was acceptable for the NSA to collect and analyze phone records “in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conservations.”

Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center, said in repeated polls taken since Sept. 11, 2001, “a solid plurality, around 50 percent” continues to say they would rather the government went too far in restricting civil liberties than not going far enough in protecting the country.

“There’s a concern about terrorism that continues to this day. And, on balance, people are saying, `protect us,'” said Doherty.

However, a Newsweek poll of 1,007 Americans taken last Thursday and Friday and released Saturday found that 53 percent believed the program “goes too far in invading people’s privacy” while 41 percent found it “a necessary tool to combat terrorism.” The Newsweek poll question said NSA “doesn’t actually listen to the calls but logs in nearly every phone number” and referred to it as “this domestic surveillance program.”


Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

© 2006 The Associated Press