WHO WOULD have thought that Dick Cheney, back when he was an aide in Gerald Ford's White House 30 years ago, worried that the president's powers were being eroded by disclosures of domestic snooping by the CIA and the FBI during the Cold War? But apparently Cheney held on to those feelings, and after the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, he and the rest of the Bush administration vowed to restore the old ways.
''I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it," Cheney said last week. ''I would argue that the actions that we've taken there are totally appropriate and consistent with the constitutional authority of the president." Cheney added pointedly: ''You know, it's not an accident that we haven't been hit in four years."
It impossible to refute that latter claim, short of obtaining information the administration keeps under wraps. But the danger of another terrorism attack should not obscure a continuing peril to American democracy: the expanded power given to the FBI, the National Security Agency, and other intelligence agencies by the Bush administration to delve into the activities of American citizens.
In Cheney's view, the president has broad powers to authorize the wiretapping of citizens when they make calls overseas. But that goes against a law passed by Congress in 1978 that prohibit listening to Americans' phone conversations unless authorized by a federal court. Congress approved the law after it got an education from a committee headed by Senator Frank Church on widespread, unregulated surveillance conducted by the FBI and CIA. Cheney apparently would rather have had Congress ignore this pattern of government abuse.
The powers of the presidency were diminished a bit by the 1970s reforms, but it did not prevent the United States from winning the Cold War, and it will not keep the United States from defeating terrorists, a very different threat than the Soviet Union. The administration is wrong to open this dusty toolbox of snooping and dirty tricks.
Church, an Idaho Democrat who died in 1984, began his investigation in 1975 just as the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War. Intelligence agencies had been enlarging their powers within the United States for the previous 30 years in response to fears of a communist threat, culminating with the FBI surveillance of groups opposed to the war. Following the Watergate break-in, a rogue intelligence mission with its roots in the campaign against dissidents, Congress finally decided to end the erosion of liberty.
''Domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association, and privacy," the Church committee found. ''It has done so primarily because the constitutional system for checking abuse of power has not been applied."
The committee was particularly concerned that the FBI was assembling dossiers on people who were conducting legitimate political protests. President Ford's attorney general, Edward Levi, adopted guidelines to stop this surveillance unless it was part of a criminal investigation. Attorney General John Ashcroft loosened the guidelines in 2002, and this week, the ACLU accused the FBI of gathering data on members of the Catholic Workers Movement and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
An FBI spokesman denied that it was doing anything wrong and said that the data might have been compiled as a byproduct of a legitimate investigation of suspected terrorists. The government should not be gathering intelligence on legitimate political activities. It can too easily be used to harass the activists if whatever they are doing -- whether it's protesting war, poverty, or a fur coat -- is unacceptable to people in power.
The Church committee also criticized the CIA practice of opening mail of people who sent letters to the Soviet Union. There's no worry about the Soviet threat today, but members of Congress are rightly concerned about the NSA snooping on the phone calls of American citizens to foreign countries, without a warrant from a special federal court. Not surprisingly, The New York Times reported last week that the NSA had intercepted strictly domestic calls by mistake. This surveillance erodes the zone of privacy that ought to protect phone calls made by US citizens, unless a judge finds there is enough suspicion of a crime to warrant a wiretap.
''At the end of the Nixon administration, you had the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy," Cheney lamented last week. Nixon was forced to resign, and the presidency had its power diminished, because the president overstepped his constitutional authority. Protection of individual rights and strict adherence to due process ensure that the leadership of the nation will not be tempted to overreach again.