Another questionable expansion of Bush’s power

A secret CIA-Treasury program to track financial records of millions of Americans is the latest installment in an expansion of executive authority in the name of fighting terrorism. The administration doesn’t apologize for President Bush’s aggressive take on presidential powers. Vice President Dick Cheney even boasts about it.

Bush has made broad use of his powers, authorizing warrantless wiretaps, possibly collecting telephone records on millions of Americans, holding suspected terrorists overseas without legal protections and using up to 6,000 National Guard members to help patrol the border with Mexico.

That’s in addition to the vast anti-terrorism powers Congress granted him in the recently extended Patriot Act.

Civil liberties activists, joined by congressional Democrats and some members of Bush’s own party, suggest the president has pushed the envelope too far _ usurping authority from Congress and abusing individual privacy rights in the process.

So far, the administration has been unapologetic.

“It’s responsible government, it’s effective government, it’s government that works,” outgoing Treasury Secretary John Snow asserted Friday at a news conference as he acknowledged _ and defended _ the far-reaching surveillance of banking transactions. He dismissed criticism that the program amounted to “data mining” on thousands of Americans.

Secret until disclosed on Thursday in news accounts, the program entails Treasury and CIA tracking of suspected terrorist financing, using access to a vast Belgium-based international database. The program was initiated shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Polls show that Americans generally accept some erosion of civil liberties if they think it makes them safer from the possibility of terrorist attacks.

Still, Bush’s war on terrorism is an open-ended one. Constitutional scholars suggest there are limits.

“At some point, the Constitution can’t bear the kind of continued strains that are being imposed by the demands of the fight on terrorism,” said Harold J. Krent, dean and professor of law at Kent College of Law in Chicago.,

“What I am worried about is that there is a potential for amassing huge databases of individuals _ linked by phone records, linked by financial records _ that can be kept and used without any kind of real oversight. It’s frightening,” Krent said.

Many in both parties point to Cheney as the engine behind Bush’s power plays.

At a Republican luncheon in Chicago on Friday, Cheney defended the financial-data tracking and earlier surveillance programs as “good, solid, sound programs” and castigated the news media for disclosing them.

When Cheney in the 1970s was chief of staff to then-President Ford, he saw presidential authority at a low point, eroded by the unpopular Vietnam War and the Watergate scandals. The balance of power was still tilted in favor of Congress when he and Bush took office in January 2001, Cheney contends.

He and Bush thus believed it was important to “have the balance righted, if you will,” Cheney told a National Press Club audience in Washington this week. “And I think we’ve done that successfully.”

One reason the administration is engaging in so much secret surveillance is that current technology makes it so easy, suggested Paul Light, a public policy professor at New York University. “It’s almost a case where the technology is leading the policy. If you can do it, why not do it?”

“Bush and his advisers just don’t see privacy rights as a particularly balancing test in making the decision to go ahead with these techniques,” Light said.

Americans may grow weary of surrendering individual rights if they decide terror-war thrusts intrude on their personal lives more directly, said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. But that hasn’t happened yet.

“Now there’s still a forgiving attitude on the part of many people in the country,” Kohut said.

He said that forgiving attitude could only be reinforced by the news from Miami of the arrest of seven men in an alleged plot against the Sears Tower in Chicago _ men Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called “homegrown terrorists.”

Bush isn’t the first president to be accused of trying to expand presidential authority. The same charges were leveled against Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

“The standard view of liberals in the past was that presidents were too weak,” said Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein. “But this is a seesaw business. It’s always dependent on whose ox is being gored.”


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

¬© 2006 The Associated Press