The chorus of Republicans willing to break ranks to hold the Bush administration accountable for its controversial domestic spying program is growing and getting louder. The White House needs to listen carefully and recognize Congress' institutional mandate to provide checks and balances. And Congress needs to rally against excessive executive actions.
For weeks, the administration has arrogantly insisted that the president had all the authority he needed - mostly through his inherent constitutional powers as commander in chief or through a resolution passed by Congress immediately after 9/11 - to order warrantless wiretaps of people in America who communicate with terrorists abroad. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that established a secret court and procedures for approving sensitive wiretaps has been almost dismissed as too cumbersome and anachronistic.
Some Republicans, such as Arlen Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, and Heather Wilson, who chairs a House intelligence subcommittee, have raised forceful concerns about the program and advocated investigating it more thoroughly. Others, who have been more acquiescent, may now be changing their tune.
Last week, Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, first averted a push by Democrats to open a broad-based investigation of the program by announcing that the White House had agreed to consider legislation that would cover it. Then, he seemed to do an about-face, saying he thought the program should be regulated under FISA, even though he was not quite sure of how to make that work. Such an apparent turnaround from a previously staunch supporter should help convince the administration that merely saying the program is necessary to fight terrorism, while offering a weak legal defense of it, doesn't make the eavesdropping legitimate.
While Congress is not in session this week, at least some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee promise to examine how to amend existing law or create new law that could provide judicial and more specific congressional oversight of the program. This will be a real test of whether the White House is willing to stand down at all from its assertions of executive authority - and whether Congress has the guts to stand up for its rights as a co-equal branch of government.