Public won't hold surveillance flap against Bush

Posted: Dec 21, 2005 12:05 AM

In the wake of the revelation that President Bush ordered secret surveillance of some Americans - without a warrant or statutory authority - some commentators are suggesting that his presidency is in dire trouble. Well, I have one idea for a pick-me-up that will put his approval ratings into at least the mid-60s: Impeach him.

Numerous Democrats have been murmuring about just such an option for a while. Sen. John Kerry recently "joked" that if the Democrats win back the House, articles of impeachment could be filed. Sen. Barbara Boxer has been hyping a conversation she had with Watergate alum and publicity voluptuary John Dean in which the author of "Worse Than Watergate" offered the shocking revelation that what Bush has done is worse than Watergate. Bush, Dean explained, is "the first president to admit to an impeachable offense." Boxer calls this a "startling assertion."

Other startling assertions sure to come down the pike . Michael Moore: "The Iraq war is the worst war ever!";  John Kerry: "This country would be better off if I had gotten more votes than Bush"; and Barbra Streisand: "Bush can't be president, I don't like him."

Meanwhile, in the boggier quarters of the fever-swamp left, calls for impeachment have been croaking up like bullfrogs in mating season for years now.

Now, it's very unlikely Bush would be impeached, for a host of reasons: The Dems probably won't win back the House, calmer heads would prevail in wartime, what Bush is supposed to have done is probably not an impeachable offense (though an impeachable offense is really any offense that Congress decides to impeach you for), etc. Indeed, President Bush's position is largely indistinguishable from the stance taken by the Clinton administration, which held that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches of even American citizens for foreign intelligence purposes.

But all of that is neither here nor there. The main reason Bush's poll numbers would skyrocket if he were impeached is that at the end of the day the American people will support what he did. The legal defense of Bush's ongoing use of warrantless wiretaps is debatable. But the political case for what he did is rock-solid. So long as we're talking about legitimate investigations of terrorist networks, it's hard to imagine the American people taking great offense. If Bush used warrantless wiretaps against, say, John Kerry or, he'd probably be impeached even by a Republican Congress. But being a zealous protector of the American people against a new, shadowy enemy who uses our openness and technology against us? That's what we elect presidents for in the first place.

On the merits, I think the administration made a mistake, though not at first. From what we know, it sounds like the initial decision to be as aggressive as possible in rolling up al-Qaida was completely justified. Recall what it was like in the weeks and months after 9/11, when the death toll was still believed to be much higher than 3,000, anthrax was buzzing through the postal system, and an unknown number of sleeper cells existed on our soil. What president wouldn't invoke his authority as commander in chief to allow his terrorist-hunters to do everything possible to track down enemies in our midst? Imagine claiming - back then - that you couldn't go full-out against some suspected terrorist who'd trained in al-Qaida camps, was in contact with 9/11 hijackers and was constantly calling al-Qaida operatives overseas, simply because he was an American citizen. Speed was of the essence, and the system back then was not speedy.

But it is now more than four years later. And as someone once said, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government program. I should know. I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in New York protected by the WWII "War Emergency Tenant Protection Act." FYI: Germany and Japan surrendered decades before I was born.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the government can obtain so-called FISA warrants retroactively. The White House should have figured out how to fix the paperwork and how to phase out the practice of snooping on Americans on American soil without a warrant. There's very little an American president can't do when there's an immediate crisis. But as it became clear this war was going to be a marathon instead of a sprint, Bush should have figured out how to reinsert the rule of law into the process. The worry that Democrats wouldn't let him do it, while politically well-founded, is ultimately not a great excuse.

But the Democrats are playing into the president's hands by getting outraged over this (just as they are being foolish by obstructing the Patriot Act). The president did the right thing, arguably in the wrong way. Trying to tear him down for it will only reinforce the view that Bush is dedicated to winning the war on terror and will make the Democrats look like they aren't.