MORE ON THE NSA PROGRAM….James Risen and Eric Lichtblau provide some additional technical information about the NSA’s domestic spying operation today:

“There was a lot of discussion about the switches” in conversations with the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the gateways through which much of the communications traffic flows. “You’re talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, How do you minimize something that’s on a switch that’s carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about that.”

….What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.

This is interesting stuff, and it sounds like pretty useful stuff to me, too. This program and this technology might very well be important elements in the fight against al-Qaeda.

But that’s not the point. The point is that it appears to be illegal, and if George Bush believed it was genuinely critical to our national security he should have asked Congress to pass legislation authorizing it. The president is simply not allowed to decide for himself to break the law simply because it’s inconvenient, and the excuse that he couldn’t go to Congress because that would expose valuable secrets to al-Qaeda is laughable. It’s tantamount to saying that he never needs to ask Congress for approval of any black program because that might somehow tip off al-Qaeda to its existence. Not only is that untrue (Congress routinely holds closed hearings to discuss sensitive issues), but it’s a transparent rationalization for the president to do practically anything he wants with no oversight at all, and that just doesn’t fly, wartime or not.

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