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How much is too much?

Perhaps meaning to reassure those of us who still believe that separation of powers is a good idea, Vice President Dick Cheney had this to say about the warrantless domestic wiretapping that his administration insists is lawful:

"The entire program undergoes a thorough review within the executive branch every 45 days. After each review, the president determines once again whether or not to reauthorize the program. He has done so more than 30 times since Sept. 11, and he has indicated his intent to do so as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from Al Qaeda and related organizations."

According to Cheney, we don't need to worry about all this secret exercise of power because the President reviews his own decisions regularly.

Forgive me if I remain suspicious. Apart from the fact that this kind of unilateral declaration of unfettered authority by any president would be frightening, this isn't just any president -- it's George W. Bush. If he's anything, Bush is unreflective and unrepentant, two qualities that in many cases are fine ones for a leader to possess, but aren't exactly what you want in a leader with unchecked power.

It's also not very reassuring to know that the review of these secret wiretaps is being conducted by an administration that would compel a retired Army colonel with as much experience in government as Larry Wilkerson to say:

"This is really a very inept administration. As a teacher who's studied every administration since 1945, I think this is probably the worst ineptitude in governance, decision-making and leadership I've seen in 50-plus years. You've got to go back and think about that. That includes the Bay of Pigs, that includes -- oh my God, Vietnam. That includes Iran-contra, Watergate."

Hugh Hewitt says a lot in favor of Presidential authority to disregard FISA and make stuff up in the name of national security. It seems to me that the problem with Hewitt's position (and all of Bush's apologists) is that he a) mischaracterizes the threat to the United States from Al Qaeda as an imminently existential one that puts our very existence as a nation in jeopardy (which is just hogwash), and b) fails to see that the kind of power Bush is claiming for himself is incompatible with a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. Nothing and no one can ever check the President when national security is offered up as an excuse.

If I misunderstand Hewitt, would someone please let me know where he thinks the limits on Presidential power lie? Surely he'd be in favor of some limits--just in case the mob should go crazy and actually elect President Hillary Clinton.

The argument that the NSA wireless wiretapping is illegal is much more persuasive. The Bush administration has fired back with a 42-page "white paper" defending itself. Should be a good source of blog fodder for weeks.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is rattling the sabers again. We should of course protect ourselves. Of course, we should destroy Al Qaeda. Also, of course, we shouldn't let these terrorists frighten us into giving up our system of government checks and balances that helps to protect us from domestic tyranny. Sadly, we are well on our way to letting them do just this.


If you haven't read it already, check out Ellis's op-ed on how 9/11 doesn't rank among the biggest historical threats to the U.S. It also notes that presidents frequently overreacted to threats, and of course wartime always presents the opportunity for an executive power grab, an opportunity that few (if any) presidents have been able to resist.

On the other hand, the wiretapping is still less awful than the previous overreaches, though I've long thought that we're coming close to the Cold War tactics.

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