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As prepared for remarks on the Senate floor.
Last week the President of the United States gave his State of the Union address, where he spoke of America’s leadership in the world, and called on all of us to “lead this world toward freedom.” Again and again, he invoked the principle of freedom, and how it can transform nations, and empower people around the world.
But, almost in the same breath, the President openly acknowledged that he has ordered the government to spy on Americans, on American soil, without the warrants required by law.
The President issued a call to spread freedom throughout the world, and then he admitted that he has deprived Americans of one of their most basic freedoms under the Fourth Amendment — to be free from unjustified government intrusion.
The President was blunt. He said that he had authorized the NSA’s domestic spying program, and he made a number of misleading arguments to defend himself. His words got rousing applause from Republicans, and even some Democrats.
The President was blunt, so I will be blunt: This program is breaking the law, and this President is breaking the law. Not only that, he is misleading the American people in his efforts to justify this program.
How is that worthy of applause? Since when do we celebrate our commander in chief for violating our most basic freedoms, and misleading the American people in the process? When did we start to stand up and cheer for breaking the law? In that moment at the State of the Union, I felt ashamed.
Congress has lost its way if we don’t hold this President accountable for his actions.
The President suggests that anyone who criticizes his illegal wiretapping program doesn’t understand the threat we face. But we do. Every single one of us is committed to stopping the terrorists who threaten us and our families.
Defeating the terrorists should be our top national priority, and we all agree that we need to wiretap them to do it. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to wiretap terrorists. But we have yet to see any reason why we have to trample the laws of the United States to do it. The President’s decision that he can break the law says far more about his attitude toward the rule of law than it does about the laws themselves.
This goes way beyond party, and way beyond politics. What the President has done here is to break faith with the American people. In the State of the Union, he also said that “we must always be clear in our principles” to get support from friends and allies that we need to fight terrorism. So let’s be clear about a basic American principle: When someone breaks the law, when someone misleads the public in an attempt to justify his actions, he needs to be held accountable. The President of the United States has broken the law. The President of the United States is trying to mislead the American people. And he needs to be held accountable.
Unfortunately, the President refuses to provide any details about this domestic spying program. Not even the full Intelligence committees know the details, and they were specifically set up to review classified information and oversee the intelligence activities of our government. Instead, the President says “Trust me.”
This is not the first time we’ve heard that. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, the Administration went on an offensive to get the American public, the Congress, and the international community to believe its theory that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, and even that he had ties to Al Qaeda. The President painted a dire and inaccurate picture of Saddam Hussein’s capability and intent, and we invaded Iraq on that basis. To make matters worse, the Administration misled the country about what it would take to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq after the conflict. We were led to believe that this was going to be a short endeavor, and that our troops would be home soon.
We all recall the President’s “Mission Accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003. In fact, the mission was not even close to being complete. More than 2100 total deaths have occurred after the President declared an end to major combat operations in May of 2003, and over 16,600 American troops have been wounded in Iraq. The President misled the American people and grossly miscalculated the true challenge of stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq.
In December, we found out that the President has authorized wiretaps of Americans without the court orders required by law. He says he is only wiretapping people with links to terrorists, but how do we know? We don’t. The President is unwilling to let a neutral judge make sure that is the case. He will not submit this program to an independent branch of government to make sure he’s not violating the rights of law-abiding Americans.
So I don’t want to hear again that this Administration has shown it can be trusted. It hasn’t. And that is exactly why the law requires a judge to review these wiretaps.
It is up to Congress to hold the President to account. We held a hearing on the domestic spying program in the Judiciary Committee yesterday, where Attorney General Gonzales was a witness. We expect there will be other hearings. That is a start, but it will take more than just hearings to get the job done.
We know that in part because the President’s Attorney General has already shown a willingness to mislead the Congress.
Russell Feingold is the US senator from Wisconsin.