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NSA Wiretapping Scandal — Beginning of a Constitutional Crisis?

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The revelation of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) secret wiretapping operation has created a further political crisis for the Bush administration.

A number of members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, are fuming because the NSA program breaks the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) passed in 1978 in the wake of Watergate.

FISA provides for special courts which must approve all executive requests for wiretapping. In practice, this has hardly provided much of a “check” on executive power since almost all requests have been approved. The intelligence agencies can even begin wiretapping without a court order as long as they seek approval within 72 hours!

Bush claims the current program is meant to intercept communication between people in the U.S. and members of Al Qaeda abroad. Since it is almost inconceivable that the FISA courts would deny administration requests to intercept such communications, the question arises as to why they have decided to completely bypass this system.

There are only two possible reasons and both may be true. On the one hand, the NSA wiretapping program may be so extensive that they believe even the FISA courts would not approve. On the other hand, it is clear that Bush and Co. are determined to push the limits of executive power based on the idea that in wartime the “commander in chief” has unlimited power to “engage the enemy.” As even some Republicans have asserted, this would essentially remove any role for Congress in overseeing the conduct of a war.

Of course, this approach is nothing new for Bush. Since 9/11, he has claimed the right to seize “enemy combatants” in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including U.S. citizens, and hold them indefinitely in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Not only has Bush said that the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war do not apply to the people seized and removed from Afghanistan, but he has also sought a legal justification for torture. And it should not be forgotten that in the immediate wake of 9/11 hundreds of people were seized within the U.S., many held for months on end without charges.

Nor should it be thought that there is any intention of dismantling this edifice of state terror after a withdrawal from Iraq, whenever that might occur. A recent Pentagon review makes clear that the “war on terror” will last at least a generation. Bush and the security apparatus want ordinary people in the U.S. to live in fear of the next terrorist attack, relying on an ever more powerful state to “protect” them.

Of course, the domestic war on terror can produce some farcical moments, as when a group of Benedictine nuns in Florida recently had their bank accounts frozen without explanation. The sinister aspect of this is that these nuns were known for their opposition to the Patriot Act. This could therefore be part of the stepped-up spying and harassment directed at the antiwar and peace movement.

So why the sudden concern from some leading members of Congress who went along so willingly with the Patriot Act – which now looks set to be extended – and other attacks on civil liberties? It is clear that these politicians, as well as the New York Times which leaked the story in the first place, are expressing the desire of a large section of the U.S. establishment to rein in the Bush regime. They have no plans to end the “war on terror” or the war on working people and civil liberties here at home. However, they want to strip Bush of some of the semi-dictatorial powers which he has assumed.

A failure by Bush to reach a compromise on this question (for example, by amending FISA to cover the new program) could provoke a constitutional crisis. Already, a number of Democrats are raising the question of impeaching Bush on this and other counts including taking the country to war based on false premises. If the Democrats regain control of Congress in November and if the Bush regime is still mired in crisis, one can expect articles of impeachment to be brought forward by more liberal members.

A Nixon-style demise for Bush the Younger would obviously be very welcome. But as socialists, we will not put our faith in the Democrats, even their liberal wing. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were ultimately not brought down by conscientious politicians but by the mass movements of that time.

What is required today is the building of a mass movement centered on the social power of the working class that mobilizes young people, women, immigrants, and all others suffering at the hands of the Bush regime. This movement must of course challenge the occupation of Iraq as well as the war at home on working people and the poor. But it must also fight to dismantle the bloated “national security” apparatus, which in reality is a massive threat to our remaining rights and liberties.

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