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Links to al-Qaeda

Everyone who reads Kevin Drum's blog knows that the former national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East, Paul Pillar, has opened up a can of whoop-ass on the Bush administration in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. In a discussion of the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's relationship to Osama Bin-Laden, Pillar writes:

In the shadowy world of international terrorism, almost anyone can be "linked" to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, the mentioning of names in the same breath, or indications of common travels or experiences. Even the most minimal and circumstantial data can be adduced as evidence of a "relationship," ignoring the important question of whether a given regime actually supports a given terrorist group and the fact that relationships can be competitive or distrustful rather than cooperative.

Substitute the word "regime" in the last sentence for "citizen" and I think this paragraph explains exactly why Bush's secret wiretapping is so dangerous. If the government can almost always come up with some evidence of a link between a target and a terrorist, it's all the more important that the executive branch not have the sole authority to determine what constitutes a "link". Without some kind of institutional check on the president's discretion to eavesdrop on American citizens "linked" to terrorists, he is free to do whatever he wants. That can't be right legally, and it certainly isn't right politically if we value a government with limited powers.

If the meek performance this week of the senators confronting Alberto Gonzales is any indication of the political opposition these days to Bush's assertion of unlimited power, it might be a while before we demand effective checks on the executive branch. We might have to wait for the scandal that is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east tomorrow morning -- the government abuse of its wiretapping powers to spy on domestic political opponents. When that day comes, I hope the Congress will muster the courage to pass a statute that sets limits on the president's power. Something like FISA should do the trick.

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