Everything from Bush-bashing to anti-liberal rhetoric to blasting politicians in general bellowed through the halls of 1957 E Street Tuesday evening at a discussion about National Security Agency wiretapping.
The Elliott School of International Affairs and the non-partisan group Americans for Informed Democracy sponsored an at-times heated roundtable discussion with three prominent speakers who sparred over President Bush’s domestic intelligence program. More than 100 people, including international media, attended the event.
Panelists debated Bush’s controversial decision to let the National Security Agency conduct surveillance within the United States without court oversight. In December, The New York Times revealed that the NSA was monitoring calls between suspected overseas terrorists and people within America’s borders.
Many politicians and legal experts have said Bush violated the Foreign Intelligence Service Act of 1978 by not getting court approval for the wiretaps; while, others have said he was within the scope of Congress’ post-Sept. 11 authorization of force, neither overstepping the law nor the Constitution.
Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, opened the forum by calling Bush “a terrible president,” saying that his domestic surveillance program ignores the law.
“This is not just about the war on terrorism; this is about a president’s unbridled power grab beyond constitutional limits,” he said. “This is an issue that affects all Americans.”
Iftikhar said Bush’s disregard for civil liberties “really strikes at the heart of everything that makes this nation wonderful.”
Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and former communications director of the Republican National Committee, defended Bush’s use of the wiretaps, which he said is legal and essential to America’s national security.
“The threat to our freedom is what we’re exaggerating here,” he said. “All we’re doing is what were doing in every war in the past.”
May said the nearly 30-year-old FISA should probably be updated to address the current threat of terrorism and take into account modern technology.
“It may be that the White House and Congress should sit down and discuss new legislation that would protect civil liberties and protect privacy as much as possible without compromising security,” May said.
Dr. Michael Scheuer, a former unit director in the CIA, said he thinks the domestic intelligence program is necessary but that it can exist within the current legal framework. During his tenure at the CIA – which included being the head of the Osama bin Laden unit – he never had a FISA request take longer than a day.
“I worked for 10 years with the FISA program and it worked very well, it worked very quickly,” Scheuer said. “I tend to give the government the benefit of the doubt on this; there must be something more to it that precludes the use of the normal FISA channel because it’s not that hard to go through.”
“I think that is the bigger problem at the moment is that the American people are complacent and are badly led,” he added.
The roundtable discussion entitled “Spying on Americans: Is it the right approach to fighting the war on terror?” was open to the public, and about 10 audience members asked the panelists questions.
Kenneth Rothschild, a D.C. resident who said he regularly attends political lectures at GW, asked Scheuer how our country can “back out of this mess.”
“I think it’s wonderful that there’s this dialogue going on at GW; I’m glad about that,” Rothschild said. “It’s good to have a forum that we can at least talk about it.”
Rothschild, who criticized the government’s “terrorism” in foreign policy in the question he asked during the forum, said after the event that he could understand a need for surveillance within the U.S. borders.
“I don’t really have a problem with domestic spying if it’s really necessary,” he said. “What I have a problem with is a dishonest government that basically is carrying us into (this) situation.”
John Birk, a freshman in the Elliott School, said he attended the roundtable discussion specifically to hear Scheuer speak about espionage.
“I was more interested in the intelligence aspect of it rather than the legality of it,” Birk said. “I think it’s going to happen regardless – our phones are going to be tapped, our communications are going to be intercepted – regardless of whether it’s legal or not.”