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Eavesdropping: Beyond Bad Manners

The President of the United States has enormous powers. During wartime, he has even greater powers, as he should. But he doesn't have "unlimited powers." Countries in which the rulers have unlimited powers are known as dictatorships, and those are the kinds of governments that we are supposedly against. So, when I heard the president use as an excuse for eavesdropping on U.S. citizens the fact that he just felt it was necessary, it didn't seem like a good enough reason. We already have a system in which there is a special court set up to issue secret warrants for this purpose. These warrants can be granted quickly, and are rarely turned down. If time is of the essence, the president can even get these warrants after the fact. The only thing is, if you get a warrant, there will be a record of whom you have eavesdropped on.

This warrant system came about after the Vietnam War when it was discovered that the federal government had been spying on people whose positions on the war were different from the administration's, and on people the government just didn't like. One of the presidents involved in these tapings was Richard Nixon, and he had an infamous "enemies list," and he felt he had a right to spy on whomever he wanted. As I recall, Nixon got into a lot of trouble.

A few days after it was revealed that the government was secretly spying on U.S. citizens without warrants, President Bush used words like "unexcusable" and "shameful." I was happily surprised that he took this position, but when I read closer, I saw that he was saying that what was "unexcusable" and "shameful" was the media's telling the American people that this spying was going on.

The problem with all this secret taping is that once it gets started, it can get out of control. Since all of this is so secretive, how are we — or Congress — to know who's listening in on what conversations?

And sure enough, a transcript of a phone call was given to me by a fictitious, yet unreliable, source. It deals with the president getting advice on the domestic spying issue from one of his closest advisors:

Harriet Miers: Hello.

President Bush: Hello, Harriet. It's the president.


President Bush: Can you hear me all right?

Harriet Miers: I hear you just fine. I'm still a little peeved at you, that's all. Bailing before they even held hearings on me.

President Bush: Harriet, I told you that was because of pressure from the Far Right Wackos. Now, I really need your advice.

Harriet Miers: Why don't you call those "Far Right Wackos" for advice if you care about them so much? Or do what you think is best. After all, "aren't you the smartest man" I ever met?

President Bush: Look, I really need some help on this domestic spying thing.

Harriet Miers: Well, if you had called me first, I would have told you to get warrants. Now, let's see. Have you played the "stopping-this-will-help-the-enemy" angle yet?

President Bush: Yep, first thing.

Harriet Miers: Good. Have you attacked the media for revealing what you shouldn't have done?

President Bush: Almost immediately. I'm also thinking of raising the threat level to the next color to prove that extraordinary means are necessary at this time.

Harriet Miers: I wouldn't. Nobody pays attention to that anymore. I'll bet even you couldn't tell me what color we're on today.

President Bush: Orange? No, yellow? I guess you're right. Well, what should I do?

Harriet Miers: Relax. The worst that could happen is that this thing will go to the Supreme Court to decide what powers you have.

President Bush: The Supreme Court? Ha! I guess we know how they'll decide. So, I have nothing to worry about.

Harriet Miers: Only your conscience bothering you for selling out an old friend. I could've been one of those justices who would grant you this outrageous power.

President Bush: Listen, I gotta go. I'm late for my bike ride.


Harriet Miers: Did you get all that?

Hillary Clinton: Every word, Harriet.

Harriet Miers: And you won't forget me?

Hillary Clinton: Not a chance.

Harriet Miers: And you know what size black robe I wear, right?

Hillary Clinton: Uh, right.

Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver

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