By Morton H. Halperin, the executive director of the Open Society Policy Center (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 08/07/08):
Two years ago, I stated my belief that the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program and disregard for domestic and international law poses a direct challenge to our constitutional order, and “constitutes a far greater threat than the lawlessness of Richard Nixon.”
That was not a casual comparison. When I was on the staff of the National Security Council, my home phone was tapped by the Nixon administration — without a warrant — beginning in 1969. The wiretap stayed on for 21 months. The reason? My boss, Henry Kissinger, and the director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover, believed that I might have leaked information to this newspaper. Even after I left government, and went to work on Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign, the F.B.I. continued to listen in and made periodic reports to the president.
I was No. 8 on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” — a strange assemblage of 20 people who had incurred the White House’s wrath because they had disagreed with administration policy. As the presidential counsel John Dean explained it in 1971, the list was part of a plan to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” My guess is that I earned this dubious distinction because of my opposition to the Vietnam War, though no one ever said for sure.
Because I rejected the Nixon administration’s use of national security as a pretext for broad assertions of unchecked executive power, I became engaged with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act when it was proposed in the early 1970s. And because I reject the Bush administration’s equally extreme assertions of executive power at the expense of civil liberties, I have been engaged in trying to improve the current legislation.
The compromise legislation that will come to the Senate floor this week is not the legislation that I would have liked to see, but I disagree with those who suggest that senators are giving in by backing this bill.
The fact is that the alternative to Congress passing this bill is Congress enacting far worse legislation that the Senate had already passed by a filibuster-proof margin, and which a majority of House members were on record as supporting.
What’s more, this bill provides important safeguards for civil liberties. It includes effective mechanisms for oversight of the new surveillance authorities by the FISA court, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and now the Judiciary Committees. It mandates reports by inspectors general of the Justice Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies that will provide the committees with the information they need to conduct this oversight. (The reports by the inspectors general will also provide accountability for the potential unlawful misconduct that occurred during the Bush administration.) Finally, the bill for the first time requires FISA court warrants for surveillance of Americans overseas.
As someone whose civil liberties were violated by the government, I understand this legislation isn’t perfect. But I also believe — and here I am speaking only for myself — that it represents our best chance to protect both our national security and our civil liberties. For that reason, it has my personal support.