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Is This A Joke?

Sen. Russ Feingold's Leadership PAC suggests the White House wants to wiretap political opponents.

April 25, 2006

Modified: April 25, 2006

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Summary

Sen. Russ Feingold's leadership PAC sponsored an Internet video making an unfounded suggestion that President Bush is being urged to eavesdrop "on anybody who has the nerve to disagree with [him] - court order or not."

A Feingold spokesman says the ad is a parody. Funny or not, it makes an accusation for which there's no evidence.

Feingold himself says in the video that "our country hasn't stood for this kind of abuse of power in 200 years." We think he's forgetting such things as FDR's forced internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II, and Lincoln's summary jailings of Confederate sympathizers.

Analysis

The Progressive Patriots Fund founded by Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin posted a video titled "W" on their website last week.  On Friday, the group's website posted an announcement that Feingold had shown the ad at a Texas fundraiser.  They say they are considering airing a shorter version of the video as a TV ad in the future.

 Progressive Patriots Ad: "W"

Advisor: So Mr. President, how's our commander in chief feeling these days?
President (off-screen):  Yeah, I'm fine, fine.
Advisor: Oh, you're a lot better than fine.  The war's over like you said.  Missions accomplished Georgie baby.
President (off screen): Huh?
Advisor: I'm sorry, that probably doesn't seem appropriate for the king of the United States.  Yes I said "King."  Think about it.  You don't have to settle for just being President GW.  The war still got everyone running scared.  They'll go along with whatever you say.  Forget the rules and quit treating the Constitution like it's set in stone.  For starters, we should be eavesdropping on anybody  who has the nerve to disagree with you - court order or not.
President (off screen): What?
Advisor:
It's not domestic spying George.  It's terrorist surveillance.
President (revealed as George Washington): Break the law? Ignore the Constitution?  What you propose goes against the very things we stand for.  As President of these United States, I would never condone that.
Feingold (voiceover): Our country hasn't stood for this kind of abuse of power for over two hundred years.  Let's not stand for it now.  Support the Progressive Patriots.  We can fight the terrorists without breaking the law or sacrificing our freedoms.  Authorized and paid for by the Progressive Patriots Fund.
         

Eavesdropping on everybody?

The video shows a presidential advisor who bears a strong resemblance to Karl Rove addressing someone as "Georgie baby" and "GW," who appears only in shadows. The Rove character says, "The war still got everyone running scared.  They'll go along with whatever you say.  Forget the rules and quit treating the Constitution like it's set in stone.  For starters, we should be eavesdropping on anybody  who has the nerve to disagree with you - court order or not. . . . It's not domestic spying.  It's terrorist surveillance." At that point "GW" is revealed, dressed as George Washington. He says "I would never condone that."
A Feingold spokesman insists the ad is "just a parody." We're not sure everybody will get the joke. It's based on an accusation for which no proof exists – that the Bush
administration is using, or wants to use, a secret National Security Agency surveillance program to spy on political opponents, something Bush says is untrue.

The NSA eavesdropping program is carried out without court warrants of any sort, but so far as is known it is used exclusively to eavesdrop on conversations that include at least one person thought to be connected to al Qaeda, and at least one person who is outside the US. Much about the program remains secret, but so far no evidence has come to light suggesting that the administration is targeting political opponents.

Feingold, a possible future candidate for his party's presidential nomination, has sponsored  a Senate resolution which would censure Bush for what the senator calls "unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required," and for "failure to inform the full congressional intelligence committees" and "his efforts to mislead the American people" about the legalities of the program

What the administration says

The most thorough public discussion of the secret program comes from a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales from February 6, 2006.  During the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) asked Gonzales about a remark made by DNC Chairman Howard Dean, comparing the program to President Nixon's infamous eavesdropping.  Gonzales responded:

Gonzales:  This is not domestic surveillance, this is not going after our political enemies. This is about international communications, this is about going after al Qaeda.

Feingold and other critics say the program violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The critics also say the program violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Privacy Act of 1974.  Gonzales has argued that the administration has expanded authority under the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) which Congress passed in response to the 9/11 attacks.  He also has argued that Article II of the Constitution gives the president "inherent powers" as Commander in Chief.

Because the program remains classified it isn't possible to confirm independently the administration's statement that there have been no abuses. Even some Republicans are seeking legislation to require review of the wiretaps by the FISA court. But no abuses have come to light so far, and so the the ad's suggestion that the administration wishes to target political critics is unsupported.   

Not in 200 years?

The ad concludes with Feingold's voice saying, "Our country hasn't stood for this kind of abuse of power in over 200 years. Let's not stand for it now." 

Feingold may be forgetting his history. President Lincoln threw people in jail without charges during the Civil War, including members of the Maryland legislature and at least one former member of Congress from Ohio.  Franklin Roosevelt moved  112,000 Japanese Americans out of their homes and held them in internment camps during World War II. They had support at the time but would be considered "abuses" by most today. In 1988 Congress declared that the WWII internments constituted "fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights" of citizens. The wartime measures of Lincoln and FDR were far more serious that warrantless eavesdropping on overseas conversations.

Also, it's not clear to us what Feingold means by "this kind of abuse." If he means warrantless wiretapping of political opponents, as his ad seems to imply, then we'd like to see some evidence. If his ad is really a parody as his spokesman says, then we wonder why Feingold isn't laughing. Perhaps he doesn't get his own joke.

by Brooks Jackson and Justin Bank

Sources

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, "Bush Let's U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts," NY Times.  16 Dec 2005.

Press Briefing by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and General Michael Hayden.  12 Dec 2005. 

Transcript of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez Testimony to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee.  6 Feb 2006.

Transcript of President Bush Press Conference at the White House.  26 Jan 2006.