Discussion looks at role of Congress in wiretapping decisions

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Recent revelations about government surveillance present a critical challenge to the ability of Congress to check the growing powers of the Presidency.

That was the consensus among a panel of experts who spoke last night in Burlington.

The discussion came in the wake of news that the government obtained from a number of phone companies records of calls made by their customers – and did so without a court order.

Administration officials say the information was obtained lawfully. Critics say the government needed the permission of the courts – and should have informed Congress.

Speaking at last night’s panel discussion, Middlebury College Political Science Professor Murray Dry said the question isn’t the necessity of obtaining the records, but whether Congress is exercising enough oversight of these activities.

(Dry) “The best argument in favor of what the President did, I think, is a combination of expediency, emergency and Congress leaks. What they did was to consult either two or four members of Congress. And then they told them not to say a thing. That just isn’t good enough from the point of view of the separation of powers. The major problem with respect to this policy is not the merits, I don’t know about that. The problem is to bypass Congress secretly and go about doing this.”

(Host) Dry said once Congress clarifies what domestic surveillance policies are, it’s up to voters to go to the polls to vote their approval or disapproval.

Panelist Ben Scotch agreed that the administration’s policies represent a test of the constitutional separation of powers. Scotch, who is past director of the Vermont
American Civil Liberties Union, says the recent revelations about phone surveillance are part of a broader erosion of civil liberties and privacy rights that is having a far reaching impact.

(Scotch) “The outcome of this debate will be important domestically, of course it is, that’s why we’re here. And perhaps equally important as part of a growing concern in other countries including our traditional friends that America lives by a double standard: Do as I say not as I do. We have much to offer other nations, but what we need most is a Marshall Plan of ideas that we believe in ourselves.”

(Host) Former CIA Station Chief Haviland Smith was also critical of the government’s argument that it doesn’t have to consult the courts or get Congressional approval for surveillance activities. But Smith said surveillance and secrecy are necessary parts of national security that present difficult challenges for an open society.

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