Op-Ed: It’s Time to Restore the Balance
It is never harder to preserve democracy than when we are in physical danger. The instruments of justice can seem too slow — niceties for a safer time, but dangerous in a time of war.
However, that thinking can go too far and create dangers of its own. In recent years, the nation has seen an assertion of virtually unlimited presidential power in fighting the war on terrorism, even when it has encroached on civil liberty protections that date back to the birth of our nation.
It is time to restore the balance.
In recent days, members of both parties in Congress protested loudly at news reports that the federal government has eavesdropped on domestic phone calls without seeking court approval.
Similar outcries have been caused by other administration practices — secret prisons, conducting interrogations in ways that violate international accords, and declaring that even U.S. citizens could be held indefinitely without court intervention.
In each case the president’s answer has been the same: That as commander-in-chief, he has the power to decide what is needed to win the war on terrorism. Courts and Congress have little or no place to question his decisions.
The intentions behind this position may be honorable, even unassailable; but it is nonetheless a dangerous path for our nation.
Our laws provide ample tools for fighting terrorism without eroding basic liberties. No one, not even a wartime president, is above the law — the checks and balances that have defined our government for more than 200 years.
Few have said this more eloquently than Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “A state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.”
I don’t want to minimize the urgency of fighting a remorseless enemy. Americans rightly expect an aggressive defense of our nation’s security. Where laws need revising, we can all work together in giving the government the tools it needs.
But our 13 original states passed the Bill of Rights because they understood the slippery slope of unchecked government power. Make no mistake. That was the original intent of the first U.S. citizens, and it serves us well to this day.
The Fourth Amendment, for instance, allowed the government to search people’s homes when there is just cause. But the sheriff was not allowed to make that determination alone. He had to submit his evidence to a court of law.
That same simple principle has a vital place in this high-tech age when, as the president said Monday, split-second decisions can save lives.
Under the 1978 law that governs national security investigations, investigators may conduct emergency wiretapping without advance court approval — so long as they quickly go to a special court afterward to explain the case and obtain authorization. Why does the president object to taking this second step?
The law balances the need for speed in fighting imminent terrorist threats against the equally important need for a court of law to review incursions on citizens’ privacy. Some have said this system is too cumbersome. But if that is true, the solution is to improve the system, not to bypass it.
Protecting the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, is not a liberal or conservative issue. It is a fundamentally American value. Americans are divided by their politics, but they share a healthy distrust of government operating without proper oversight.
We have defeated many powerful enemies, and we will defeat the terrorists. Our freedoms, and our government of checks and balances, must not become a casualty in the process.