Obey the Law

It was appropriate that the issue of government domestic spying was raised at the recent funeral of Mrs. Coretta Scott King. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family were victims of a vicious domestic spying program instigated by the federal government.

The parallels with today’s domestic spy program are almost exact. It was done in the name of national security. It was authorized by the president, John F. Kennedy, and the attorney general, Robert Kennedy, and carried out by the FBI. There was a war on — in that case, the Vietnam War as well as the Cold War. It was kept secret from the public.

The FBI not only tapped King’s telephones but also planted bugs in places where he was staying. One tape, which allegedly implicated King in an extramarital affair, was sent to Mrs. King.

Now think about this. Here is the federal government secretly spying on an American citizen and trying to break up his family and disrupt the civil-rights movement. And this was not done by some right-wing fanatic, but by two bona fide liberals, the Kennedy brothers.

The current president says he has authorized domestic spying without warrants only on those connected to terrorists, but he refuses to provide even Congress with enough information for his claim to be verified. As you can see from the King affair, even people with good intentions can abuse government power in the heated atmosphere of war. We don’t know who is being spied upon. We would not even know spying was going on but for a whistle-blower who tipped off The New York Times, which sat on the story for a year before finding the courage to publish it.

That every tyrant who ever lived rationalized his abuse of power by claiming to be protecting the people or the empire or the country is kindergarten basic civics. We should know better at this point in our history. We are a nation of laws, not an empire and not a monarchy. Our Constitution deliberately created a weak chief executive.

The president, for example, is not our commander in chief. He’s the commander in chief of the armed forces. As far as we civilians are concerned, he is just the administrator of laws passed by Congress. He cannot make laws. He cannot assume powers not given to him by the Constitution or by Congress. He must obey all the laws just the same as you and me.

A problem for many Americans is that they have never lived in the free republic created by our forefathers. We became a war state during World War II, and the Cold War was used as an excuse to maintain a war state and to expand it. We are spending more on defense than most of the rest of the world combined at a time when the only threats we face are isolated attacks by a loosely organized band of criminals. The government in Washington has become as secretive as the old Soviet Union.

Too many Americans are willing to let demagoguery scare them into writing a blank check to any politician who claims he will protect them from the boogeyman. I, for one, will never surrender this free republic, no matter how many enemies, real or imagined, are at the gates. What would be the point? Our ancestors fought for freedom and independence, not for a dictatorship. You can’t be free if you give the president unlimited powers to violate both the laws and the Constitution.

The tension between a government of law and a government of men runs throughout American history. What worries me is that while there seems to be constituencies for every special interest in the world, there is little or no constituency for liberty and the rule of law.

I would like to see all Americans send the president a simple message: "With all due respect, sir, obey the damned laws or resign. Both the law and the Constitution require warrants for domestic spying. Get them. Both the law and the Constitution require that Congress exercise oversight. Cooperate with Congress. You are a public servant, not a God-anointed ruler of a kingdom."

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.