National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Bush Legacy Already Established

WASHINGTON — President Bush should stop worrying about his legacy. It's already established.

By his deeds you shall know him; preemptive war, torture and wiretapping, for starters.

Nothing said in history can wipe out those flaws in his administration. And no revisionist historian down the road can diminish the importance of those acts. He has governed with threats — and by nourishing fear in the American people.

The president seems to have a hard time abiding by the law. Referring to his struggles with Congress during his first year in office, Bush joked that "a dictatorship would be heck of a lot easier."

But it is no joke that he has found ways to circumvent the constitutional restraints of his office with signing statements and secret directives.

Bush also has been able to execute his power grab by playing the fear card — and with hardly a peep from a cowed Congress. This tactic has worked most of the time.

Now, fortunately, the administration is encountering some pushback from Capitol Hill, from those who reject the chipping away of our civil liberties and the tarnishing of our reputation in the world among those who once respected our leadership.

It was Benjamin Franklin who said, "If we are willing to give up our liberty for security, we are in danger of losing both." Hopefully, more lawmakers will realize the wisdom of those words.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) gives the president a wide berth to invade the privacy of Americans. True, a warrant is needed for eavesdropping but in a dire emergency, wiretapping can begin and the warrant obtained later, after the eavesdropping.

What's the problem with persuading a judge before starting the wiretap?

"It's cumbersome," says the administration.

Warrants for eavesdropping have rarely been denied by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court created under the FISA law that was enacted in 1978.

Meantime, the president has threatened to veto a legislative ban on waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques that are tantamount to torture.

In waterboarding, a prisoner is strapped to a board with his face covered with a cloth and water poured over his face and nostrils. The goal is to induce a sense of drowning.

At two consecutive news conferences late last year, the president said flatly: "We do not torture."

So why does he want to veto legislation to ban it?

U.S. legal commitments and international law bar torture of prisoners as "cruel, inhumane and degrading."

Bush has rejected a congressional demand that the rules in the Army Field Manual about the treatment of prisoners should apply to the CIA and to government security contractors. The manual does not allow waterboarding.

In a strange defense of Bush's viewpoint, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the Army Field Manual is "public for all to see, and we know that al-Qaeda trains to resist interrogation techniques such as those. So the president will veto the bill."

Thirty retired admirals and generals have sent a letter to key Democrats stating their view that intelligence agents must adhere to the Army manual on treatment of prisoners. They said it was vital for the protection of U.S. troops if captured by an enemy.

Last Friday, Steven Bradbury — acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel — told Congress that the department has not decided whether waterboarding is unlawful.

But he said changes in the law since three terrorism suspects were waterboarded have eliminated the technique from the list of allowable practices.

Bradbury is notorious for signing two legal memos in 2005 authorizing the CIA to use head slapping, freezing temperatures and waterboarding when questioning terrorism suspects.

Because of those memos Senate Democrats have blocked his nomination by Bush to formally head the legal counsel's office.

As his months in office dwindle down, Bush has often said his low standing in public opinion polls do not worry him because he is certain he will be vindicated in the future.

He should stop worrying about his legacy. Instead, the president should use his fading time in office to do some soul searching on whether he could have done better in the most powerful job in the world.


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