Separation of powers, rule of law protect Americans
One lesson of the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration was that the president and his subordinates must follow the law, regardless of how right they think they are and how much they profess to be acting in the national interest.
In the uncertain and hectic days after Sept. 11, 2001, it is understandable if President Bush temporarily overstepped his bounds in a sincere effort to protect the nation from another terrorist attack. But more than four years have now passed — plenty of time for the administration to make sure it is following both the letter and the spirit of the law.
The president admitted Saturday that he has been bypassing a special secret court and authorizing electronic eavesdropping on Americans and other people within the United States. He called this a "vital tool in our war against the terrorists."
That's his opinion, and it may be right. It's backed up by legal opinions of people who work for him, including the attorney general and the White House counsel.
But under our constitutional system, the opinions of the president and members of the executive branch are not the only ones that matter. We have separation of powers, checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
News reports say the administration touched base with the legislative branch by consulting key members of Congress, but did not ask for their approval. The secret court was supposed to allow the judicial branch to review executive decisions promptly and confidentially, but that court was excluded from the process.
The question here for the American people is whether they trust the president and his subordinates alone to make decisions that infringe American citizens' constitutional rights, even when the law requires approval by another branch of government.
Congress, controlled by the president's party, has not been eager to second-guess this administration, although recently more skeptics in both parties have begun to speak out about such things as the Patriot Act, the Iraq war, and the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.
It's time for Congress to take seriously its oversight duties, hold hearings and make its own independent judgments about the administration's spying on Americans.