The White House Social Office needs to note right now, before anybody has a chance to forget, that it really must send flowers, chocolates and wall-sized Christmas cards (um, holiday cards) next year to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times.
The intrepid duo saved the Bush presidency recently by breaking news that the National Security Agency has been conducting surveillance of Al Qaeda operatives abroad and their minions in the United States. The reporters noted that the agency monitored phone calls, e-mails and other electronic communications by means of sophisticated eavesdropping devices and even more sophisticated computers that can pick out known terrorists' vocal patterns while monitoring words and phrases that may refer to terrorist acts and targets.
This is hardly new. "Signals intelligence" has been the rage among intelligence communities for some time. CBS reported in 2000 on the Echelon program, a joint effort involving the United States and its four chief English-speaking allies to monitor every electronic communication on Earth. Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush 43 each authorized the use of such surveillance (without bench warrants) in cases involving national security.
The Times pushed the story furiously, and its editorial page inveighed gravely against the president. A handful of Democrats cited the reportage in demanding the president's ouster, while purveyors of Beltway Conventional Wisdom declared "impeachment" the word of 2006.
Yet as opponents grimaced and gathered, curious and unexpected things happened. The president's poll ratings rose, as did public support for the supposedly controversial operation.
This confluence of events works not only to the president's advantage, it fits his political style. When pushed, George W. Bush doesn't like to play smash-mouth. He prefers the poker stratagem of calling people's bluffs.
He did it in proposing his tax cuts. He did it in seeking authorization for the war. And now, he can perform his biggest bluff-call yet.
To understand why, consider a few observations:
— A president ought to do whatever is necessary and proper to defend American citizens from terrorists.
— A president has constitutional authority to approve warrantless searches of known and credible terror suspects, especially when he puts in place procedures that allow all three branches of government to oversee the operation.
— Intelligence failures permitted Al Qaeda to pull off not only the Sept. 11 attacks, but also a series of assaults before and after, including the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the attack on the USS Cole; the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia; slaughters in the Madrid and London subways; and hotel massacres in Jordan and Bali.
— Signals intelligence and data mining have almost unparalleled potential for exposing terror networks and complicating the work of would-be mass murderers.
Given these statements of the obvious, the president ought to open his State of the Union Address by asking Congress to give him official authority to approve warrantless searches of known and identified terrorists, or of people in regular contact with those terrorists whom authorities reasonably suspect of plotting to commit acts of murder, terror or sabotage. These activities ought to be subject to monthly review by the attorney general. The administration also ought to be required each month to brief the top four congressional leaders, both intelligence committees and the head of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The proposal would codify the status quo — but shorten the reporting periods to 30 days from 45 — and place the impeachment crowd in a sticky situation. The public would support both proposals overwhelmingly, leaving the president's most hysterical critics isolated utterly.
Note who has not spoken against the NSA program since the Times story broke. The list includes Harry Reid and Dick Durbin in the Senate; Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer in the House; and members of both intelligence committees. In other words, Democrats in the know either have supported the surveillance program or just kept their mouths shut.
A straightforward vote would shut up the rest, highlighting vividly the gulf that separates a president responsible for national security from critics responsible to nobody. Civil libertarians are right to fret about abuses of government power, which is why successive administrations have brought Congress, the courts and the Justice Department into the review process. But the Great Bluff-Caller is right about an even more fundamental point: If we try to fight the war on terror with eyes shut and ears packed with wax, innocent people will die.