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Bush Bans Torture, Admits Spying on Americans; Senate Blocks Patriot Act


The Guardian, Washington, D.C., Dec. 17, 2005

Photo: George W. Bush, The Nation, November 11, 2000

The White House yesterday suffered a new assault on its conduct of the war on terror when the Senate refused to renew provisions of the Patriot Act.

The rebuff, which leaves the anti-terror law in limbo before crucial portions expire on December 31, was delivered amid growing outrage at reports that President George Bush secretly authorised eavesdropping on Americans inside the U.S. without court oversight.

It was the second setback for the White House in two days after Mr. Bush yielded to Congress and agreed to ban cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees.

The Senate vote was driven by a report in yesterday's New York Times that the president signed a secret order in 2002 authorising the national security agency to monitor international phone calls and emails of hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. citizens without obtaining a court warrant. Several senators accused the administration of treading on civil liberties following the September 11 attacks, and Arlen Spector, the Republican chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, said he would press for hearings early next year.

The White House would not confirm the veracity of the report. But in an interview to be broadcast on P.B.S., Mr. Bush defended his leadership of the war on terror: 'After 9/11 I told the American people I would do everything in my power to protect the country within the law, and that's exactly how I conduct my presidency.'

The secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said: 'The president acted lawfully in every step he has taken to defend the American people.'

Several N.S.A. officials told the New York Times they were so concerned about the legality of conducting wiretaps without surveillance court approval that they declined to participate. The programme was temporarily suspended last year amid questions about its legality from the judge of the court, which operates in secret.

The legal justification came in a memo from John Yoo, a former justice department official, who advised the administration on the definition of torture and presidential powers to prosecute the war on terror, the New York Times reported.

Critics of the administration said the report raised questions about the legality of the president's order, and was a disturbing throwback to the abuses of the 1960s and 70s when the government spied on anti-Vietnam war activists.

'The president apparently believed that he could order government officials to commit a crime, and if that's the case then it is an astounding and frightening incident of lawlessness,' said Kate Martin, director of the Centre for National Security Studies. 'We know that some in the justice department had advised the president that he was above the law when it came to national security matters, but we didn't know the president had adopted that view himself and acted on it.'