Sunday, January 01, 2006

Proceeding according to form

Apparently, it is all a matter of form:

A top Justice Department official objected in 2004 to aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use amid concerns about its legality and oversight, according to officials with knowledge of the tense internal debate. The concerns appear to have played a part in the temporary suspension of the secret program.

The concerns prompted two of President Bush's most senior aides - Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general - to make an emergency visit to a Washington hospital in March 2004 to discuss the program's future and try to win the needed approval from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery, the officials said.

The unusual meeting was prompted because Mr. Ashcroft's top deputy, James B. Comey, who was acting as attorney general in his absence, had indicated he was unwilling to give his approval to certifying central aspects of the program, as required under the White House procedures set up to oversee it.

With Mr. Comey unwilling to sign off on the program, the White House went to Mr. Ashcroft - who had been in the intensive care unit at George Washington University Hospital with pancreatitis and was housed under unusually tight security - because "they needed him for certification," according to an official briefed on the episode. The official, like others who discussed the issue, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the program.
And any threat of prosecution is not stopping the information from getting out. But (pace TBogg), this is where it gets interesting:

Accounts differed as to exactly what was said at the hospital meeting between Mr. Ashcroft and the White House advisers. But some officials said that Mr. Ashcroft, like his deputy, appeared reluctant to give Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales his authorization to continue with aspects of the program in light of concerns among some senior government officials about whether the proper oversight was in place at the security agency and whether the president had the legal and constitutional authority to conduct such an operation.

It is unclear whether the White House ultimately persuaded Mr. Ashcroft to give his approval to the program after the meeting or moved ahead without it.
One is left only with speculation: did John Ashcroft's sense of right and wrong come into play? Was he, unlike Alberto Gonzales, unwilling to sell out all of his principles for the greater glory of power? Or did he simply understand, and respect, the force of law?

Several senior government officials have said that when the special operation first began, there were few controls on it. Some agency officials wanted nothing to do with it, apparently fearful of participating in an illegal operation, officials have said.
Or just with doing things decently and in good order?

That led to uncertainties about the chain of command in overseeing law enforcement activities connected to the program, officials said, and it appears to have spurred concerns within the Justice Department over its use. Mr. Thompson's successor, Mr. Comey, was eventually authorized to take part in the program and to review intelligence material that grew out of it, and officials said he played a part in overseeing the reforms that were put in place in 2004.

But even after the imposition of the new restrictions last year, the agency maintained the authority to choose its eavesdropping targets and did not have to get specific approval from the Justice Department or other Bush officials before it began surveillance on phone calls or e-mail messages. The decision on whether someone is believed to be linked to Al Qaeda and should be monitored is left to a shift supervisor at the agency, the White House has said.
Don't you feel safer now? A shift supervisor at the NSA is deciding who's a terrorist threat, and who isn't.

The paradox of Christianity (one of many, actually) is that it requires a group, a movement away from self and toward others. "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name," Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew, "I am there with them." When it comes to discipline of a member of the group, that is carried out privately at first (between friends), but publicly if a private reconciliation is impossible. Whatever the members of the group do to the least of others, they are told, they do to their Lord.

There are all kinds of problems with invoking religion in matters of governance; but there are some good reasons to do it, too. There are also excellent reasons, in government as well as in private life, for it not to be simply a matter of form.

(Here, for those interested, is a good analysis of the wiretapping situation and the "investigation" into the leak. The short answer is: what is being investigated is not the leak of classified information, but the disclosure of illegal activity. Which, since the President says it is legal, is not then, illegal. Accroding to the President. But disclosing legal activity, is illegal; even if all that is disclosed is that illegal (excuse me, "legal") activity is being conducted, although the classified (and therefore protected) details are not disclosed.

It should make for an intersting investigation. Can't imagine how they argue this one to a grand jury.)

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