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By John Hanchette

"Get a good night's sleep and don't bug anybody without asking me." -- President Richard M. Nixon to his re-election campaign manager, Clark MacGregor, in 1972.

OLEAN -- Just as we were starting to adopt a cheery Yuletide mood around here, the White House Ghost of Christmas Past came clanking around to dampen it, dragging along an infamous historical figure.

The New York Times exclusive last week that related how our National Security Agency -- with the express and secret approval of President George W. Bush -- has been eavesdropping on people within the country's borders without the appropriate judicial warrants is stunning on its face.

But then we learn the Counterintelligence Field Activity Office, a semi-secret cloak-and-dagger unit of Dubya's Pentagon, has been spying on domestic anti-war protesters under the gloss of protecting military bases and other installations. The Pentagon's target groups included those hideously cunning Quakers, whose fiendish pacifist tendencies are well-known. Bring any recent presidents to mind? Can you spell R-i-c-h-a-r-d M-i-l-h-o-u-s N-i-x-o-n?

Nixon so loved listening in on wiretapped conversations that he even bugged himself in the Oval Office -- a psychologically questionable activity that eventually played a large part in driving him to resign office under threat of certain impeachment.

Nixon and his henchmen were ready to listen in on anybody at any time. And they showed no qualms about it. In the summer of 1969 -- in the Chicago trial of eight peaceniks charged with conspiracy to incite violence during the previous summer's uproarious Democratic National Convention -- Nixon's Justice Department filed a memorandum in federal court that it had the inherent right to wiretap anyone, foreign or domestic, without a court order, whenever it believed "national security" was in jeopardy. When asked what legal authority was being drawn upon to justify this mammoth power, Nixon's lawyers cited his presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution" from subversive enemies "both foreign and domestic."

You have to admit, that was pretty inventive. As examples of such dangerous subversion, Nixon's lawyers pointed to increased rioting and protest against the Vietnam War in the nation's cities and on college campuses.

Nixon's chief lawyer -- Attorney General John Mitchell, another eventually jailed architect of the Watergate Scandals that finally brought Nixon down -- tried to soothe privacy-loving Americans: "Any citizen of this United States who is not involved in some illegal activity has nothing to fear whatsoever."

That didn't do much convincing, of course. Most sentient Americans recognized immediately the danger in such a standard: It all depends on who gets to define "illegal activity."

As a response to public upset and pressure from civil libertarians over the Nixonian terrors, Congress in 1978 passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). One of the things the legislation did was create secret FISA courts.

When the FBI or other federal agencies wanted to secure approval to eavesdrop domestically on suspected spies -- or more recently, suspected terrorists -- they had to go to a FISA court and covertly obtain a formal judicial warrant to do so. The big news last week was that Dubya has essentially replaced those judges without telling the public.

According to The New York Times, since 9/11, Bush the Younger has personally and secretly authorized NSA eavesdropping projects within United States borders more than three dozen times.

When they learned of it, this so cheesed off U.S. senators of both political parties that, just before the weekend, they refused to renew the USA Patriot Act -- legislation which provides the Bush administration's main tools for fighting terrorism, and which expires on Dec. 31. Even GOP senators are furious. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised hearings when the new year rolls around. Specter said he wants to know "whose conversations (the NSA) overheard, what they did with the material, what purported justification there was." Dubya, who at first refused comment on the electronic spying, delivered a rare live radio address from the White House on Saturday. He came out swinging: "This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security. This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is crucial to saving American lives."

The president said it is only used to intercept global communications from people inside the United States who have already been determined to have a "clear link" to terrorist groups, and that the surveillance has already "helped detect and prevent terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad," but he didn't get specific. His authorizations, said Bush, make it more likely that "killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time."

Nor will he stop authorizing such electronic surveillance. He intends to sign such authorizations "for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaeda and related groups."

Bush also had harsh words for those who squealed to The New York Times: "The unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk."

The reaction was immediate. James Bamford, an intelligence expert who wrote "The Puzzle Palace" about the NSA, criticized Bush for bypassing the special FISA courts described above.

"I didn't hear him specify any legal right, except his right as president, which in a democracy doesn't make much sense," Bamford told European reporters.

It is still unclear why Bush agreed with underlings to avoid judicial oversight. The secret FISA courts are "generally efficient and deferential to the government," as the Los Angeles Times noted in an excellent editorial on the subject. "One early defense of (Bush's) program is a claim by the administration that it had to be implemented quietly -- the president authorized it as a classified order -- because otherwise terrorists would be alerted to its existence and work to evade it. But those same suspected terrorists would have already known that they might be wiretapped with the aid of a secret warrant. What is the difference?"

I'm not at all sure Bush is in as much trouble as newspaper editorials and TV commentators indicate.

One reason is that, despite partisan politics and media scoops, history shows the American public, given a choice between liberty and security, will always choose security. It happened in World War I and World War II and it is happening now.

Bush will claim before public and politicians alike that he can demonstrate conclusively our security really is at stake in this brouhaha.

In a depressingly real sense, can we really do anything about it, anyway? The NSA for years has had in place an incredibly sophisticated intelligence-gathering system -- employing satellites, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic connections -- called Project Echelon. This supposedly secret global electronic communications surveillance system, integrated with British allied agencies, captures mammoth volumes of traffic every minute both to and from North America. The intercepted material is then run through ultra-sophisticated computer filtering technologies and networks, which pick out key words or addresses so a legion of analysts at NSA headquarters in suburban Maryland can decipher it. The European Parliament has created a special oversight committee to monitor and find out more about Project Echelon. Who is to know if this sinister Brave New World scenario is not also directed at America's own citizens -- despite the legal niceties?

There's another disquieting media angle to this dispute. It turns out the vaunted New York Times sat on this Bush-approves-eavesdropping story for a full year -- after meeting with White House officials over it. The Times editors admit they removed information that the White House said could be "useful" to terrorists.

The big story last week gave no explanation to readers about what had changed in a year to justify publication, nor let on that expanded information on the subject will be in a book the lead reporters are preparing for Simon and Schuster. Times executive editor Bill Keller acknowledged in a statement over the weekend that his paper agreed not to publish the story a year ago because it was "faced with a convincing national security argument." The New York Times letting the White House edit its stuff? And then censor it, for whatever reason? Hmm ... some food for speculative thought there, eh?

This is the same paper that recently admitted much of its reporting on Iraq's alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction -- the linchpin of Bush's raison d'etre for invading -- was seriously flawed. You can bet media critics will now accuse the Times of being too cozy with the Bush administration.

The one thing we can conclude is that George W. Bush either doesn't understand the concept of checks and balances, and the judicial review necessary to ensure legality of action, or doesn't trust that system -- or just doesn't give one damn hoot about it.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec. 20 2005