Snooping

President Bush has been staunchly defending his wiretapping "program," which involved illegal tapping of the phones of American citizens by the NSA, a secret spy agency which is supposed to limit its snooping to outside the borders of the country.

The real puzzle here is why Bush chose to ignore the normal procedure set up by Congress--which is hardly restrictive. You can wiretap and then get a warrant retroactively up to 72 hours later and still be within the law. But Bush chose to ignore that stipulation and go it on his own, once again saying "trust me."

The whole issue here is oversight--in a democracy, in theory at least, the power of the executive should never be unchecked. However, the whole notion of oversight seems to irk Bush to no end.

Up to 500 people were spied on at a time--with possibly thousands spied on over the course of the past five years.

Last night, it came out that Bush called in the editor and the publisher of the New York Times to try to get the story about the snooping stopped. They weren't convinced that national security issues were at stake--although they had already, for some unknown reason, sat on the story for about a year.

This morning's columns are predictable--the left is pounding Bush, the right is defending him--with the exception of conservative George Will, who gently suggests that Bush is out on a limb on this one. Conservatives, Will argues, have usually been the ones in favor of limited government authority to snoop.

The bugaboo of national security is always the wedge used to erode freedom of speech. Richard Nixon made a fast transition from interpreting national security to mean his own political fortunes. I do not believe Bush has done the same, and I doubt that political opponents have made it on the spy list.

However, there is a larger issue at stake: the rule of law. The law in this case is plain as day. Is the executive free to ignore it when he pleases?

I think a lot of people who are comfortable with Bush exercising such power would get queasy if the same power were in the hands of Bill Clinton.