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.”
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
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
“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.
decision to authorize the NSA’s surveillance without the complicity of
a court or Congress was a mistake,” Will wrote.
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
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
“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,”
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
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.
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
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
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
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.”