Did Bush lie about wiretaps to cover up his spying program?

John Kerry points to contradictions in calling for an investigation; Howard Dean invokes the specter of Nixon.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 20, 2005 8:24PM (EST)

Sometimes we wonder why the White House maintains a Web site, let alone one where it's awfully easy to search prior statements and speeches for "gotcha" moments. Once George W. Bush admitted that he signed an executive order authorizing warrantless wiretaps on American citizens, it didn't take the blogosphere long to find statements from the past in which Bush seemed to insist that he never did any such thing.

At an event aimed at talking up the Patriot Act in April 2004, Bush addressed the question of wiretaps. "Now, by the way," he said, "any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think 'Patriot Act,' constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution."

That certainly seems to be different from what Bush is saying now -- that over the past three years, he has authorized and repeatedly reauthorized the "interception" of communications without warrants. John Kerry, among others, wants an explanation. In a statement issued today, the once-and-future Democratic presidential candidate said that prior statements by Bush and Dick Cheney "no doubt were designed to leave the impression with Americans that the government wasn't authorizing the wiretapping of our own citizens without any warrant or oversight by a court," when in fact it was doing just that.

Was Bush lying when he said "nothing" had "changed" and suggested that his administration was continuing to obtain warrants for its wiretaps? Maybe, but maybe he was just choosing his words carefully. We still don't know much about the secret spying program the president authorized. And, as many commentators have pointed out, the program could have involved some sort of widespread communications monitoring or data mining rather than simple "wiretaps," at least as that term is commonly understood. The repeated references to "technical" issues -- in the New York Times report, in the defenses mounted by administration officials, in the extraordinary letter Jay Rockefeller sent to Dick Cheney -- suggest that there's something more than garden-variety listening in going on here.

That's the kind of thing that a congressional investigation could and should uncover. As Kerry said today, "Congress needs a full accounting and real oversight, not executive power run amok without checks and balances and Congress kept in the dark. Americans deserve an honest debate, not more misleading talk, not another public relations offensive when our security and our constitutional rights hang in the balance."

In a message to supporters today, Howard Dean put it even more bluntly. "We need to know whether George Bush went beyond the limits of the law, and whether he and his administration believe that there are any limits at all." In pushing for the release of documents related to the spying program, Dean invoked memories of Richard Nixon, who once said: "If the president does it, it can't be illegal." Nixon learned the hard way that his ideas about the law weren't necessarily true. "This administration," Dean says, "may need a reminder."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Espionage George W. Bush Howard Dean John F. Kerry D-mass.