No, this isn’t a new question—and it certainly isn’t an unreasonable one to ask: even the timid White House press corps is willing to put it forward. As a result, the Bush administration has been “answering” it over and over again, ever since the story broke late last year. Its answers, though they do seem to satisfy a great number of Americans, always fall flat on close examination. They are not providing the “real” reasons.
So what is the real reason?
There has been plenty of analysis of what the Bush administration says about the program. Claims that it could have stopped 9/11, that there isn’t time to get warrants, and so forth, have been rebutted many times. By now it is clear to anyone paying attention: Everything that the Bush administration claims it needs to do to “protect” America could be done within the outlines of the FISA law.
So why step outside it?
There are only two possible reasons:
- The administration does not believe that Republicans will ever lose control of the White House now that they have it. However, they are not quite so sure about Congress. Therefore, they want to expand presidential power as much as they can as quickly as they can, establishing precedents for presidential prerogative that can be used to stop opposition at such a time as the Democrats regain control of at least one House of Congress. If you are paranoid, you may already believe that they now know they can fix any national election, but have found that local and state elections are harder to control. They may have the arrogance to believe the same thing, though I doubt “fix” is a word they would use in that regard.
Some conservatives do recognize the danger of such arrogance. Grover Norquist, of all people, is one of them. The other day, he said:
Even if you believed an angel was making these decisions, and that's not what I'm saying, at some point the person in the White House will change, Hillary Clinton might be making these decisions.But Norquist, for all of his high-profile conservative credentials, is not part of the insider neo-con cabal that is really running this country. After five years in power, they may seriously believe that no one will ever get them out. Hell, they may have actually believed that back in 2001, once the Supreme Court put them in power!Certainly, there is no way the group in the White House would have countenanced expansion of presidential power by the Clinton Administration—and would be just as against its expansion by another Clinton—or any other Democrat. The argument, then, is not far-fetched: they would only put forth such a program of expansion of power if they believed they would never relinquish power.
- This possibility is almost as scary. And it is that the real reason for spying without warrants is that the administration wants to make sure there is no “paper trail” (no warrants that could be sifted through by a subsequent administration) concerning the objects of the spying.If this is the case, then the objects are not merely possible terrorists (that their identities might be discovered at some distant time would bother no one) but are people the administration never wants known to have been the objects of surveillance.
Who could such people be? The representatives of foreign governments, for one. Investigators looking into misdeeds by administration allies, for another. Exposing such spying would cause a much greater furor exposure of spying on the obvious targets: Democrats, progressives of all stripes, and Quakers. It could ruin the legacy of the administration, if it were found out later, and could destroy it, if it were exposed now.
Try as I might, I can’t come up with any other reasons for ignoring FISA that stand up.