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Why Is Domestic Spying a Surprise?

TONY COX, host:

Many people in this country have been alarmed to learn that the Bush administration has been secretly wiretapping the phones of American citizens without presenting evidence before a judge and obtaining a court order. But commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson wasn't surprised at all. He says there's nothing new about domestic spying, but that still doesn't justify it.


The big puzzle is why anyone is shocked that President Bush eavesdropped on Americans. The National Security Agency for decades has routinely monitored the phone calls and telegrams of thousands of citizens. The rationale has always been the same: that it was done to protect Americans from foreign threat or attack. The main targets in the past have been Muslim extremists, Communists, peace activists, black radicals, civil rights leaders and drug peddlers. President Harry Truman established the NSA in a Cold War era directive in 1952, and the agency kicked its spy campaign into high gear in the 1960s when the FBI demanded they monitor anti-war activists, civil rights leaders and drug dealers.

Fast-forward to 2002 and there were warning signs that government agencies would jump deeper into the domestic spy business. President Bush scrapped the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations. The directive gave the FBI carte blanche authority to surveil and plant agents in churches, mosques and political groups and ransacked the Internet to hunt for potential subversives without the need or requirement to show probable cause of criminal wrongdoing. The FBI wasted little time in flexing its newfound intelligence muscle. It mounted a secret campaign to monitor and harass Iraq war protesters in Washington, DC, and San Francisco in October 2003.

The September 11th terror attacks gave Bush an excuse to plunge even deeper into domestic spying, but Bush also recognized that if word got out about the NSA domestic spying, it would ignite a firestorm of protests. Fortunately, it did. Despite Bush's weak and self-serving national security excuse that it thwarted potential terrorist attacks, none of which is verifiable, the Supreme Court, the NSA's old mandate and past executive orders explicitly bar domestic spying without court authorization. The exception is if there is a grave and imminent terror threat. That's the shaky legal dodge that Bush used to justify domestic spying. Bush and his defenders discount the monumental threat and damage that spying on Americans poses to civil liberties, but it can't and it shouldn't be shrugged off.

During the debate over the creation of a domestic spy agency in 2002, even proponents recognize the potential threat of such an agency to civil liberties. As a safeguard, they recommended that the agency not have expanded wiretap and surveillance powers or law enforcement authority and that the Senate and House intelligence committees has strict oversight over its activities. These supposed fail-safe measures were hardly iron-clad safeguards against abuses, but they understood that domestic spying is a civil liberties nightmare that has wreaked havoc on Americans' lives in the past. Bush's claim that domestic spying poses no risk to civil liberties is laughable. Congress should demand that Bush and the NSA come clean on domestic spying and then promptly end it.

COX: Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and political analyst. Tomorrow, we'll hear a different take on the debate over domestic spying from commentator Joseph C. Phillips.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson