Sen. Frist's Mixed Up Signals

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Republican Bill First of Tennessee, the U.S. Senate majority leader and one of the presidential "hopelesses" for 2008 (He has all the makings of another Bob Dole) was quick to pounce on the resolution sponsored by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisconsin, to censure President George W. Bush for authorizing wiretaps without a warrant on people in this country suspected of having phone conversations with Al Quaeda terrorists abroad.

"Russ is wrong. He is flat wrong. He is dead wrong," Frist said on Sunday’s "This Week" on ABC, just moments after Feingold had announced his resolution on the same program. Frist at least showed a little more class than publisher Carl Limbacher did in his report on the controversy Monday morning. The majority leader did not use, as Limbacher did in his opening paragraph, the phrase "aid and comfort to America’s enemies" to describe what Frist sees as the likely effect of Feingold’s resolution. No, the distinguished senator would not stoop so low as to accuse his "good friend" and colleague of treason. He merely hinted at it.

"As I was listening to it," First said of Feingold’s discussion of the resolution with host George Stephanopoulos, "I was hoping deep inside that the leadership in Iran and other people who really have the U.S. not in their best interests, were not listening, because of the terrible, terrible signal it sends."

It seems a strange, yet unchecked, assumption that we should judge the value of a measure introduced in the U.S. Senate by how it will be judged by rulers and peoples in other lands, especially by those hostile to us. Were that the rule from the beginning, we might never have passed and ratified the Bill of Rights, which, come to think of it, would have made things a lot more convenient for the current administration and those who, like Sen. Frist, squander a great deal of their time, energy and, sad to say, credibility defending it.

It also seems unlikely that the "leadership in Iran" and others in the Middle East who may wish us harm were listening at the time to ABC’s "This Week." In light of recent events, I think some of them, at least, may have been watching the cartoon channel. Still, they have no doubt heard about Feingold’s proposal, and Frist worries about the "terrible, terrible signal it sends."

Think about that. Our nation is ostensibly trying to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and doing a wonderful job of it, according to President Bush, citing elections in Afghanistan and Iraq (and ignoring, as much as possible, the results in Palestine). Yet if our elected representatives attempt to call the chief executive to account for breaking the law and violating the Fourth Amendment rights of people in this country, that supposedly sends a "terrible, terrible signal" to the part of the world where we are trying to promote self-government. Apparently Frist and others in Congress believe our commitment to spreading freedom around the world is so all-consuming that we can’t afford the time and effort to defend it at home.

Consider what has happened: The president has acted in apparent violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which stipulates a warrant is required for the eavesdropping that Bush (or Cheney or whoever) has authorized without warrants. Then there is that little detail called the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures," and requires that all warrants be issued only on a show of probable cause. That is all part of the Constitution that this president and every president since the beginning of the Republic has sworn to "preserve, protect and defend." That same Constitution stipulates that the president shall "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Is it too much to ask, then, that the president himself obey the law — or be called to account by the people’s representatives if he does not?

Apparently so, according to the Senate majority leader. "So the signal that it sends, that there is in any way a lack of support for our Commander-in-Chief, who is leading us with a bold vision in a way that is making our homeland safer, is wrong," Frist said. First of all, the president is commander in chief of our military forces only, which hardly gives him or his subordinates the authority to spy on civilians in our land. Secondly, it is by no means certain that these wiretaps or other secret surveillance of our people being carried out by various agencies of the government are making "the homeland" any safer. Not knowing the details of all the surveillance programs (and I doubt President Bush does either) I am nonetheless inclined to agree with Veterans for Peace activist John Amidon who spoke at a rally in Albany, New York against the policy of excluding homosexuals in military recruiting. Later he learned that the gathering of about 75 people at the SUNY Albany campus was being watched by government officials.

"Maybe, just maybe," said Mr. Amidon, "if the leaders of the u2018Free’ world stopped spying on Quakers and librarians and Veterans For Peace, they might actually engage in the work we are paying them to do — protect rather than harm and threaten us."

Gee, a government that protects, rather than harms, harasses or otherwise threatens the law-abiding people it allegedly serves. A government that requires even its highest elected officials to obey the law. Just think, Sen. Frist, of what a “terrible, terrible" signal that might send to the rest of the world!

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.

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