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Legal eavesdropping appropriate But no one wrote the Bush administration a blank check to do whatever it wants

Senate Judiciary Committee members and U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales weren't on the same page Monday as they opened debate over federal eavesdropping on international telephone calls. The senators were reading the Constitution. Gonzales was stuck in the Book of Doom.

America's top lawyer kept defending something that didn't need defending -- the right of America to protect itself by intercepting communications that could tell it that a clandestine enemy is intent on murder and mayhem. That's not the core of this debate. Few Americans would deny government that option -- provided the government doesn't unnecessarily trample individual rights while doing it.

A valid wiretapping process exists. It involves the use of a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that can and almost always does issue eavesdropping warrants that the government has applied for by the thousands. A provision even allows immediate wiretapping, requiring only that the government application be submitted for review within 72 hours.

The administration seems to revel in its record of pushing the legal limits of permissible interrogation, detention and investigation practices (don't call it torture) until it is forced to stop. What Gonzales really argued is that Congress gave the administration a blank check right after 9/1 1 to combat the terrorist threat. Because the threat will extend indefinitely, so does virtually unlimited executive wartime power. If that doesn't scare the heck out of you, it should.

The issue isn't whether the government can resort to wiretaps, it's whether the government can just use warrantless wiretaps at will. The government has a process to do the wiretaps it feels it needs. If it finds that process too restrictive or cumbersome, then it has only one valid option, asking Congress to change the law after considering the matter on behalf of the people. Raw seizing of wiretapping power is not an option at all.

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