February 10, 2006

Americans say president shouldn’t suspend rights

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Most Americans believe a president
should not be allowed to suspend constitutional guarantees in
order to fight terrorism, a poll released on Friday said.

The poll, taken for the American Bar Association in the
wake of the controversy generated by President Bush's domestic
spying program, found the public divided over whether
government eavesdropping on personal communications could ever
be justified.

"As our poll shows, and legal scholars agree, the awesome
power of government to penetrate citizens' most private
communications must not be held in one set of hands," Michael
Greco, the group's president, told a news conference.

"To prevent the very human temptation to abuse this power
there must be checks and balances in the form of oversight by
the courts and Congress," he said.

"I personally reject the false choice that is being offered
Americans that they must give up their liberties to have
security. We must protect both, and we can protect both," he

With the administration refusing to provide details of the
eavesdropping program, which was a closely held secret until
recently, the extent of any violations are unclear, Greco said.

The program, authorized by Bush in 2001, allows the
National Security Agency to monitor the international phone
calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens to track people with
suspected ties to al Qaeda and other militant groups.

The White House has said warrantless eavesdropping is legal
under Bush's Constitutional powers as commander-in-chief and a
congressional authorization for the use of military force
adopted days after the September 11 attacks.

The program bypassed secret courts created under the 1978
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that grant warrants.
Greco said if those courts do not work as they should, the
administration should ask Congress to amend the law.

The Harris Interactive telephone survey of 1,045 adults
taken February 3-6 found that 77 percent have reservations
about the fundamental issues raised by the eavesdropping
controversy, the ABA said in releasing the survey.

Of that group, 52 percent agreed that a president should
never be able to "suspend the constitutional freedoms of people
like you." Another 25 percent said constitutional freedoms
should never be suspended unless authorized by a court or

Only 18 percent said a president could lift constitutional
guarantees any time if it was necessary to protect the country
and another 5 percent said they did not know or declined to
answer. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3

A second question asking what would justify government
eavesdropping on personal communications without a search
warrant or court order found 45 percent saying such action
would never be justified.

A further 48 percent were divided, with 22 percent saying
it would be OK based on "an anonymous tip that you may be
helping to plan a terrorist attack in the United States" and 21
percent saying it would be justified based on "someone's
suspicion that you may be sending money to a terrorist

ABA delegates plan to vote on Monday on a policy proposal
calling on Bush "to abide by our constitutional system of
checks and balances and respect the roles of Congress and the
judiciary in protecting national security consistent with the
Constitution." It also calls for a halt to the eavesdropping.