It's been known for several years that the Bush administration willfully ignored and broke laws requiring oversight from Congressional leaders and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and then justified its actions on the need to protect American lives and national security. What's now becoming clear, however, is that the justification for such programs -- from massive illegal eavesdropping on Americans to a plan to organize assassination teams to kill suspected terrorists abroad -- often was trumped up, while the programs' usefulness was misrepresented and minimal, at best.
The report earlier this month by the inspectors general of five key federal agencies -- the CIA, National Security Agency, Justice Department, Defense Department and the Office of National Intelligence -- is particularly stunning. It found, for example, that the approximately 200 key federal and private officials questioned about the broad-scale warrantless wiretapping of Americans' phone and e-mail communications "had difficulty citing specific instances" in which the information gained actually proved valuable, much less saved American lives.
That particular finding contradicted the defense offered by President Bush and Vice President Cheney when the illegal wiretapping was exposed. Mr. Bush, for example, said in January 2006 that the surveillance programs "helped prevent attacks and save American lives." Mr. Cheney said the same several times.
In truth, the inspectors general learned, the program was approved by the White House on a dubious legal opinion by a Justice lawyers, John Yoo, who bypassed his own bosses and gave his tailored opinion directly to the White House. Later on, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave his approval based on misinformation about what the NSA actually was doing with eavesdropping and data mining.
Even the CIA, the inspectors general found, could not link the illegally obtained eavesdropping information with any specific arrests or successes in countering terrorism. Had the program been better crafted and approval legally obtained from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the investigating inspectors general wrote, it would have been more widely used and more valuable. It also would have been more respectful of the law and the White House's constitutional duties.
Though much of the inspector generals' report was kept classified, it said President Bush had approved other intelligence activities that had never been publicly acknowledged. At least one other program that came to light almost simultaneously was confirmed last week by CIA director Leon Panetta. That is the plan, formulated by the CIA in 2001 after the attacks of 9/11, to organize special operations teams to assassinate suspected terrorists abroad.
Though the plan apparently was never executed, it was regularly reviewed and considered until last month, when Mr. Panetta, who took over the CIA earlier this year, was finally informed of it. He quickly killed it, and then told Congress about it.
The idea apparently never made it past the planning stage because of a range of complex issues. These included how the CIA could safely conduct assassination operations in foreign countries against the risk of involving their agencies, the possibility of mishaps, and the legal and public consequences of ordering or botching an assassination plan -- a tactic banned by former President Gerald Ford decades ago.
The eavesdropping report and the assassination plan, of course, are just the latest in a continuing course of revelations of illegal or dubious conduct by the Bush administration over the previous eight years that eroded public confidence in the government at home and abroad. Others have involved the physical and legal treatment of detainees, harsh interrogation techniques, deaths and abuses, legal military detention standards and adjudication of their cases, which have sweepingly bypassed standard military, treaty and criminal procedures.
Though Republicans hounded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this summer when she claimed that the CIA had often failed to provide legally mandated briefings to the so-called "gang of eight" -- the Democratic and Republican leaders of both chambers of Congress and the leaders of their intelligence committees -- it now seems undeniable that her claim has merit. That is broadly troubling. If Congress' oversight is not observed, a rogue White House quite obviously could trample the law and evade and erode the boundaries that keep the nation's government accountable and on track.
That's reason enough for Congress to pressure its own reluctant members, and the Obama administration, to investigate the Bush administration's suspected abuses of intelligence powers and legal guidelines.