Saturday, February 11, 2006

Americans say president shouldn't suspend rights

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 added.

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 Congress.

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 points.

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 organization."

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.