A Refresher: Warrantless Spying Was Blatantly Illegal

Frontline's new documentary about NSA spying is an important reminder of how Bush officials violated the Constitution.
Reuters

The PBS program Frontline has produced an exceptional documentary on NSA spying, beginning with the September 11 attacks and continuing right up to today. The whole thing is worth watching.

The recent history it presents is shocking, even if, like me, you were already aware of it. Frightened by terrorism, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, Michael Hayden, and others conspired to spy on U.S. citizens without a warrant. Doing so was felony behavior.

This refresher on their actions persuades me anew that they deserved, and deserve, to be prosecuted for their actions and imprisoned for an appropriate duration. As well, these men violated their oath to defend and protect the Constitution.

Their illegal spying nearly prompted a mass resignation at the Department of Justice. Numerous government officials warned them that their actions were illegal and unconstitutional. This did not deter them. A number of patriotic bureaucrats objected to the surveillance program within the government, and when it continued, some of the went to the press. For a long time, The New York Times under then-Executive Editor Bill Keller kept this a secret.

The most surreal moment in the documentary comes when then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, another Bush official who facilitated illegal warrantless surveillance, explained that he launched an investigation into the identity of the whistleblowers who leaked it to the press because "they broke the law," and "the job of the Department of Justice is to prosecute those who break the law."

As part of this investigation, former NSA employees who'd objected to the illegal program were suddenly confronted with FBI agents, guns drawn, raiding their houses. As a candidate, Barack Obama labeled the program illegal. After he was elected, Obama and Gonzales's successor Eric Holder presided over the persecution of people who exposed it. While opinions vary on Edward Snowden, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that this behavior is part of what prompted him to act.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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