A federal court case involving Internet wiretapping has revealed the Bush administration at its worst.
I don't say this lightly. Senior attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice showed up before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week and argued that the president should be able to violate federal law--and that judges can't do anything about it.
Their argument rests on something called the "state secret" privilege, which traditionally has been used to pull the plug on lawsuits that could, for instance, disclose national-security secrets such as a crashed military plane's true mission.
But now President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have expanded it to throw out a lawsuit (PDF) saying that AT&T illegally opened its network to the National Security Agency. Their arguments rest on the principle that even if the president is breaking the law, he can get away with it as long as he invokes national security. Courts would be demoted to a clerical role of noting that the "state secrets" privilege has been invoked and dismissing the case post-haste.
This would, if taken to its logical conclusion, allow the president to get away with murder.
Here, of course, we're talking about the Bush administration trying to derail a civil lawsuit against AT&T filed to right a wrong--there's no criminal prosecution--but the principle is the same. (Note that 50 USC 1809 makes it a federal felony to engage "in electronic surveillance under color of law, except as authorized by statute.")
No wonder the judges were skeptical. "The bottom line here is that once the executive declares that certain activity is a state secret, that's the end of it?" Judge Harry Pregerson asked. "No cases, no litigation, absolute immunity? The king can do no wrong?"
These are the kind of questions that journalists should be asking as well, and that's what I'm planning to do through this new blog here on CNET News.com. It's an independent, nonpartisan effort to report on the intersection of technology, law and policy in the areas that affect our lives and liberty.
And because I said it would be nonpartisan, I should acknowledge that the Department of Justice during the Clinton and Carter presidencies invoked the state secret privilege as well. And it's true that perhaps a Gore or Kerry presidency would have veered in the same expansive direction as Bush has. But that lies in the realm of speculation; the reality today is that we have the worrying prospect of a president who would place himself above the law.