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Presidential absolutism: Bush claims unlimited surveillance powers

McClatchy-Tribune News Service | January 17, 2007 

The following editorial appeared in the Sacramento Bee on Saturday, Jan. 13:


When Congress was out of town for the winter recess, President Bush asserted unilateral powers to open U.S. mail without a warrant. In yet another unfortunate "signing statement," Bush claims he can do searches without obtaining a warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and laws enacted by Congress. This comes on top of earlier claims that he can intercept phone calls and e-mails.

Congress passed a routine bill designed to improve the quality of postal service for Americans on Dec. 9 - the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. Among other things, it restates U.S. law that domestic mail cannot be opened without a warrant, making an exception where there is a credible threat that the mail may contain an explosive device. When the executive branch believes it has a legitimate need to search targeted mail, existing laws allow the executive branch to get a warrant quickly from a criminal court or a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge.

Yet when Bush signed the postal bill, he added a statement reserving the right to ignore the law. Bush justifies his actions with radical claims about a "unitary executive branch" with exclusive powers and limitations on federal courts to interfere. So we have executive power unrestrained by law and unchecked by any other branch of government.

At a minimum, the new Congress should hold oversight hearings to find out the number of times the Bush administration already has done warrantless searches - and going forward, require the executive branch each year to state publicly the number of times it opens mail without a warrant.

Beyond that, it seems there will have to be a showdown in the courts to defend the Constitution and the ability of Congress to enact laws.

The Constitution says the president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed." In our system of government, the president cannot selectively ignore laws he doesn't like. If Bush doesn't like a law passed by Congress, he should veto it.

Clearly, our system of separation of powers is in doubt as the president claims unilateral powers to do whatever he wants. More than 200 years after Americans rejected the tyrannical acts of King George III, we've got another George with kingly pretensions that need to be checked.


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