Executive Power and National Security

EXECUTIVE POWER AND NATIONAL SECURITY….In the LA Times today, former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach writes about Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, wiretapping, and national security:

In October 1963, Hoover requested Atty. Gen. Kennedy to approve a wiretap on King’s telephone….Bobby was furious. Hoover’s charge that King was a pawn of the communists could potentially taint the whole movement and bring into question everything we were doing to vindicate the constitutional rights of black citizens. It was hard to think of an issue more explosive.

….It was only years later, at the Church Committee hearings held after Hoover’s death, that the full scope of Hoover’s anti-King activities became known. I was ? and am ? appalled. And sad. This man who was a national symbol of law and order ended up grossly violating the nation’s trust and respect in the name, he said, of national security.

….Today we are again engaged in a debate over wiretapping for reasons of national security ? the same kind of justification Hoover offered when he wanted to spy on King. The problem, then as now, is not the invasion of privacy, although that can be a difficulty. But it fades in significance to the claim of unfettered authority in the name of “national security.” There may be good and sufficient reasons for invasions of privacy. But those reasons cannot and should not be kept secret by those charged with enforcing the law. No one should have such power, and in our constitutional system of checks and balances, no one legitimately does.

As Katzenbach says, the issue is not wiretapping per se or even national security per se. It’s all about oversight. The president is not above the law, and the history of unchecked power shows pretty clearly that even if it starts out with good motives, it usually doesn’t end that way.