Swinging back

The Baltimore Sun

The imperial presidency that George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have worked so hard to protect and strengthen seems to be crumbling around them.

The broad mantle of executive authority Mr. Bush assumed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is being shredded piece by piece, largely as a result of public opposition to the Iraq war - an overreach that vastly undermined confidence in unchecked presidential power.

Two striking examples occurred almost simultaneously last week: The Bush administration was forced to retreat after the FBI was revealed to be abusing - and botching - its authority to secretly demand personal records of Americans, and a band of fired U.S. attorneys blew the whistle on political influence in the prosecutorial process.

In both instances, the Democratic-controlled Congress elected on an anti-war vote last fall won't accept administration apologies or denials but has vowed to pursue long-overdue legislative remedies. Republicans should join them - some already have.

A Justice Department audit of the FBI's use of national security letters to obtain telephone, e-mail and financial records from U.S. residents and visitors between 2003 and 2005 offers a textbook case for why judicial authority over such sweeping power is essential. The inspector general's investigation, conducted on orders from Congress and over the objections of the Bush administration, found use of the letters rife with errors in which unauthorized records were collected and stored, often without any justification, and in violation of civil liberties and privacy protections.

For better or worse, the mistakes appear to result from incompetence or laziness rather than criminal intent. But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III's apologetic promises to better monitor the situation fall far short of what's needed.

The arrogance of unchallenged power was on full display earlier in the week when six former federal prosecutors hired by the Bush administration, then given an unceremonious heave-ho, came before Congress to report suspicions that they'd been replaced for failing to put their offices at the service of the administration's political objectives.

Within days, the administration gave up trying to defend a section of the Patriot Act that allows replacement U.S. attorneys to take office without Senate approval. Repeal of that section should now be paired with judicial curbs on the FBI's use of national security letters.

More than five years after 9/11, the fear and horror have subsided enough for most Americans to recognize that their safety does not depend on yielding a president absolute authority. Had it not been for Mr. Bush's disastrous performance on the Iraq war, that process might have taken even longer.

But the power pendulum is swinging back, and the nation is safer as a result.

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