Monitoring Domestic Phone Calls

In December 2005 The New York Times published a story claiming that President George W. Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to monitor domestic telephone calls without first obtaining a warrant, as required under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). The Bush Administration confirmed that the wiretaps had been authorized, but he also claimed that as president, he had the right to make such an authorization, citing a joint resolution by Congress shortly after the September 11 attacks. That resolution, President Bush said, authorized him to take whatever steps were necessary to pursue individual terrorists and terrorist groups. He insisted that his actions were legal and necessary.

Civil libertarians, however, did not see the issue the way the Bush Administration did. Groups such as the ACLU claimed that Bush had circumvented the law by failing to get the proper warrants from a special FISA court set up to serve exactly that purpose. The problem, they maintained, was not so much that the president felt compelled to conduct the wiretaps, but that he did not even inform the relevant agencies about what he was planning to do.

The rationale behind this is what makes civil liberties such a complex issue. On the one hand, the libertarians make a valid point: There was no reason for the president to bypass the FISA court, and by omitting this step he may have compromised individual freedom more than he realizes. On the other hand, the president’s supporters make an equally valid observation: If just one overheard telephone conversation gives the nation a piece of valuable information (such as the location for a terrorist attack) that saves lives and destruction, the benefit is well worth the trade-off of not obtaining a warrant first.

As of January 2006 it was unclear whether Congress would declare the Bush Administration’s actions illegal under existing legislation.


Inside Monitoring Domestic Phone Calls