Bush’s biggest lie that day was his claim that his
warrantless wiretaps inside the United States were needed to intercept
calls in which “one of the people making the call has to be al-Qaeda,
suspected al-Qaeda, and/or affiliate.”
The President said, “Let me put it to you in Texan:
If al-Qaeda is calling into the United States, we want to know.” His
listeners laughed and applauded.
With his folksy style, Bush again got away with his
false assertion that existing law wouldn’t let U.S. intelligence
intercept these al-Qaeda telephone calls when, in fact, the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 set up procedures for just such
intercepts and even let the Executive tap first and get approval from a
secret court later.
But “talkin’ Texan” is apparently like telling tall
tales about Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, except Texas-sized.
Bush’s wiretap lie was abetted a day later, when
Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden refused to
divulge to the Senate Intelligence Committee – even in closed session –
how many Americans were subjected to Bush’s warrantless wiretaps.
By keeping the scope of the operation secret,
Hayden protected Bush’s account, since the President had depicted the
eavesdropping as “limited,” affecting only a “few” people who supposedly
were in direct touch with al-Qaeda operatives.
If Hayden had admitted the truth – that many
thousands of Americans had been spied on under Bush’s warrantless
wiretaps and few, if any, had any links to al-Qaeda – Bush’s story would
So, Bush administration officials have contended
they can’t divulge the numbers or other details to avoid “helping al-Qaeda.”
But people knowledgeable about U.S. eavesdropping capabilities say the
number would be of no help to al-Qaeda, nor was the New York Times
disclosure in December 2005 that Bush was conducting wiretaps without
Al-Qaeda operatives have long assumed the United
States has the capacity to intercept their phone calls and e-mails, so
they go to great lengths to deliver messages face-to-face or to send
messages by courier. When they do communicate electronically, they make
only brief cryptic references because they expect the message may well
Sept. 11 Prevention
Bush and Hayden also have tried to justify the
warrantless wiretaps by speculating that the Sept. 11 terror attacks
might have been prevented if this extra-legal “terrorist surveillance”
program was in place in 2001.
But the September 11th Commission found
that the failure to stop the terrorist attacks resulted from the U.S.
government fumbling the interpretation of available evidence, not from a
lack of electronic eavesdropping.
Bush’s first counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke
faulted the President for failing to show decisive leadership and “shake
the trees” of the federal bureaucracy after being warned in August 2001
about an impending al-Qaeda attack.
Yet, Bush appears to be counting on the
weak memories of Americans and their susceptibility to emotional
arguments. To make that work, however, Bush has had to keep the numbers
of wiretaps secret so he can mislead about the scope of the operation.
What the domestic spying actually seems to
entail is the National Security Agency scooping up conversations and
e-mails of vast numbers of Americans – possibly in the hundreds of
thousands, if not millions – and then mining that data.
Federal officials told the New York Times
that this wiretap data generates thousands of tips each month, which are
then passed on to the FBI for further investigation.
“But virtually all of [the tips], current
and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans,” the
Times reported. “FBI officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency
that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. … Some FBI
officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes
involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans’
privacy.” [NYT, Jan. 17, 2006]
In other words, this widespread wiretapping
of Americans is not restricted to a small number of people who are
chatting with al-Qaeda associates; it is prying into the communications
of innocent Americans and burdening U.S. law enforcement with worthless
tips that divert investigative resources away from more promising leads.
An investigation by the Washington Post
reached a similar conclusion.
“Intelligence officials who eavesdropped on
thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President
Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after
hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts
from current and former government officials and private-sector sources
with knowledge of the technologies in use,” the Post reported on Feb. 5,
The Post cited two “knowledgeable sources”
who said the number of Americans spied on through the warrantless
wiretaps was in the thousands, with one source putting the number at
But the Post added, “the program has
touched many more Americans than that” because the technology sifts
through hundreds of thousands of e-mails, faxes and phone calls before
selecting Americans for closer examination.
These depictions of a vast program don’t
square with Bush’s down-home claims about the government having the
phone numbers of some al-Qaeda operatives and just wanting to know who
they’re talking to in the United States.
Though Bush is telling the American people
to trust him, he already has been caught lying about this wiretapping
program, which he first authorized in 2002. Two years later, he went out
of his way to give assurances that he was following the law and getting
warrants for terrorism-related wiretaps.
In 2004, Bush
told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., that
“by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking
about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order. … Nothing
has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down
terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”
On New Year’s Day 2006, Bush lied again, insisting
that his warrantless wiretaps only involved communications from
suspicious individuals abroad who were contacting people in the United
States. Bush said the eavesdropping was “limited to calls from outside
the United States to calls within the United States.”
But Bush’s explanation was at odds even with what
his own administration had previously admitted to journalists – that the
wiretaps also covered calls originating in the United States. The White
House soon “clarified” Bush’s remarks to acknowledge that his
warrantless wiretaps did, indeed, involve communications from the United
States. [NYT, Jan. 2, 2006]
But Bush apparently has decided that – if
framed right – the wiretap issue can help him politically. Bush’s aides
have begun counterattacking, accusing Democrats and the news media of
jeopardizing the safety of Americans.
“Let me be as clear as I can be: President
Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our
national security interest to know who they're calling and why,”
declared deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove in a speech on Jan.
20. “Some important Democrats clearly disagree.”
Rove didn’t specify who any of these
“important Democrats” were, most likely because no prominent Democrat
has disagreed with the need to know who al-Qaeda is calling or why. They
only are saying that the existing FISA law set legal standards for
permitting this surveillance and that Bush has chosen to circumvent the
For his part, Bush is painting his
detractors as helping the enemy by just mentioning the wiretaps.
While talkin’ Texan at the Grand Ole Opry
in Nashville, Tenn., Bush said, “I'm sure you can
understand why you don't want the President or anybody talking about the
operating details. … If you're at war, and you're trying to stop an
enemy from attacking you, why in the world would you want to tell the
enemy what they're doing to stop them, because they'll adjust.”
Bush then assured the appreciative crowd, “We are
safeguarding your liberties.”
Bush also bathed his Grand Ole Opry listeners in
feel-good rhetoric about the fundamental decency of the American people.
“What a fantastic country,” Bush said. “We deeply
care about every human life. The life of a child in Baghdad is precious.
And so when we see these killers kill somebody – a young child outside a
hospital where one of our soldiers is handing out candy, we weep,
because Americans have a deep compassion for every human being.”
But Bush didn’t mention how his invasion of Iraq has
led to the killing and maiming of tens of thousands of civilians,
including many children.
For instance, at the start of the war, Bush
authorized the bombing of a restaurant in Baghdad because some faulty
intelligence suggested that Saddam Hussein might be having dinner there.
As it turned out, Hussein wasn’t there, but 14 civilians were killed,
including seven children. One mother collapsed when her decapitated
daughter was pulled from the rubble.
Some legal scholars have cited this bombing and
similar incidents as evidence of war crimes committed by Bush, but the
President has never apologized for killing civilians in Iraq, instead
claiming that Hussein was the one who “chose war.”
Bush reprised that favorite chapter of his
revisionist history during his Grand Ole Opry speech, too.
“We gave Saddam Hussein a chance to deal with the
world in good faith by honoring the United Nations Security Council
resolutions,” Bush said. “He chose – it was his choice – he chose to
defy the resolutions. And so we took action.”
In other speeches, Bush has gone even further,
rewriting the history to say that Hussein hadn’t let the U.N. inspectors
in, even though the inspection teams entered Iraq in November 2002 and
were citing good Iraqi cooperation before Bush forced them to leave in
March 2003 so the invasion could proceed. [For details, see
Bush, With the Candlestick…”]
New evidence also has emerged in Great Britain,
revealing that Bush planned to invade Iraq regardless of what the U.N.
inspectors discovered or whether the U.N. Security Council approved a
“The US would put its full weight behind efforts to get another
resolution and would ‘twist arms’ and ‘even threaten’. But [Bush] had to
say that if ultimately we failed, military action would follow anyway,”
according to minutes of a Jan. 31, 2003, meeting between Bush and
British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Bush and Blair also discussed the possibility of creating a pretext for
war. According to Bush, “The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance
aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam
fired on them, he would be in breach” of U.N. resolutions.
”It was also possible that a defector could be brought out who would
give a public presentation about Saddam’s WMD, and there was also a
small possibility that Saddam would be assassinated,” Bush said,
according to the minutes.
At the meeting, Bush added that after the invasion, he “thought it
unlikely that there would be internecine warfare between the different
religious and ethnic groups.” (The minutes were obtained by human
rights lawyer Philippe Sands for a new edition of his book, Lawless
World. The minutes were reviewed by British
Channel 4 News.)
Though Bush was wrong about Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and the likelihood
of sectarian violence under the U.S. occupation, he continues to urge
the American people to trust his judgment on a plan for “victory in
Talkin’ Texan at the Grand Ole Opry, Bush said, “I
want to describe right quick our plans for victory in Iraq. First of
all, anytime we put our troops in harm's way we got to go in with
victory in mind.” The audience responded with warm applause.
In his Nashville remarks, Bush did back away from one
longtime canard that he’s used to justify seizing broad powers
domestically, invading Iraq and ignoring international law. In speech
after speech, Bush has insisted that before Sept. 11, 2001, Americans
thought the Atlantic and Pacific oceans protected them from foreign
But no American growing up during the Cold War felt
that way. They knew that Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles
could obliterate American cities in minutes.
At the Grand Ole Opry, Bush finally took note of
complaints about this misleading argument by acknowledging the fact
that the oceans really wouldn’t have protected Americans from nuclear
“When we grew up, oceans protected us, it seemed
like,” Bush said. “We felt pretty safe and secure from an attack on
American soil. We were concerned about a nuclear threat, but
nevertheless, we felt secure because we were isolated from threats it
In “talkin’ Texan,” the phrase “it seemed like” must
be synonymous with “almost the same as true.”