Following the revelation that President George Bush authorized the National Security Agency to tap the international communications of certain people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda without first obtaining a federal warrant a funny thing happened — his approval ratings jumped.
According to a recent ABC/ Washington Post poll, the president's overall approval rating climbed from a career low 36 percent to a much more respectable 47 percent. More significantly, the approval rating for the administration's handling of the war on terrorism climbed eight points to a strong 56 percent. It would appear that a majority of Americans believe that conventional intelligence-gathering procedures may not be adequate to fight men that fly airplanes into buildings.
Our national intelligence agencies must have the flexibility to adapt to our enemies' changing methods and tactics on a dime. In short, Americans do not find it unreasonable to use extraordinary means to hunt down al-Qaeda terrorists in order to prevent another attack like the one that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.
In spite of the loud and often angry charges of illegality, the issue at hand is not one of legality but one of constitutionality. Article 2 of the United States Constitution asserts that the president will "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution." The Bush administration — and every administration that preceded it — maintains that during times of war and where matters of national security are concerned, the president has an inherent authority to act extra legally.
The Bush administration makes a compelling case that the president's authorization of wiretaps is not illegal because it is the Constitution and not Congress that empowers the executive office.
In theory, assuming this reading of the Constitution is correct, during a time of crisis the powers of the president may become limitless. Americans are naturally wary of such reasoning. What is to prevent a future president from expanding the current narrow parameters of no-warrant searches to accommodate some expanded version of terrorism all in the name of something as vague as "national security"?
The Constitution is not a suicide pact and our civil liberties are non-negotiable. However, the delicate balance between presidential powers and our national security needs cannot be maintained through greater bureaucracy. In fact, tying the president's hands with red tape may actually endanger the lives of Americans.
Ultimately, authority rests with the people and this is as it should be. The most valuable check on presidential power and the most effective protection of our civil liberties is public opinion as expressed through the people's representatives. The real-life application of presidential power rests largely in the will of the president and the trust of the people.
The president claims his actions were justified and within constitutional limits. If Congress believes the president has grossly overstepped his authority then they should move to impeach him. The president is making his political case to the people.
At the end of the day this is the manner in which constitutional matters are decided — not in legal courts but the court of public opinion.
Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles.