There's a legal way to obtain wiretaps

President Bush's footing got a bit shakier with the revelation he has authorized wiretapping between United States residents and people outside the country without seeking court authorization.

With each new disclosure, Bush manages to cement the reputation that emerged from the early days of the fruitless searches for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. He believes the ends justify the means.

Again and again - most recently with the torture issue and with the more stringent provisions of the Patriot Act - Bush falls back on one refrain. If it helps catch terrorists, if it helps make America a safer place, then he has an obligation to do it.

It's a fine goal. But every cop in America would tell you that the job of putting away crooks would be a lot easier if he or she didn't have to bother with asking a judge for a warrant.

Gathering intelligence on suspected terrorists obviously is an important role of the National Security Agency. There is no doubt that much valuable information has been obtained, and there is a strong likelihood such information has helped protect the country.

However, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was written in the 1970s specifically for the purpose of making sure electronic eavesdropping of conversations between people in this country and foreign countries didn't violate Americans' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.

A secret court may grant a request for wiretapping based on probable cause, and the wiretap can continue for two months.

Yes, it can be a cumbersome process - the secret court convenes only twice a month - but it's the legal way to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects.

Bush is arguing that Congress' post-Sept. 11 authorization to "use all necessary and appropriate force" to fight terrorism gives him permission to use wiretaps without warrants. We wonder what else he believes that includes.


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