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Obama Administration Defends Wiretapping Without Warrant -- And Loses

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Rare is the head of state who agrees to give up any form of power, however ill-gotten it may be -- and, in that regard, Barack Obama is just not that rare.

So we find the Justice Department arguing in defense of one of the most egregious abuses of power -- indeed, an illegitimate assumption of power -- bequeathed to him by the Bush administration: the illegal wiretapping of Americans. Yesterday, the administration lost a round in that fight, when a federal judge ruled the warrantless wiretapping conducted by the National Security Agency to be illegal.

Due to an error made by the government, an Oregon-based Islamic charity, al Haramain (now defunct), found out that the NSA had been intercepting its phone calls. In 2004, it filed suit against the government.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, had sought to have the case dismissed without being heard, on the grounds that proceeding with the case in federal court would lead to the revealing of state secrets.

Judge Vaughan R. Walker of the federal district court in San Francisco was having none of it. In a decision delivered yesterday, the judge, according to the New York Times, "characterized that expansive use of the so-called state-secrets privilege as amounting to 'unfettered executive-branch discretion' that had 'obvious potential for governmental abuse and overreaching.'"

In his decision, the judge also ruled the NSA's entire program of surveillance on Americans without warrants to be illegal. Hats off to the judge!

With all of our focus on the day-to-day politics of bread-and-butter issues like health care and jobs, we've taken our eye off the continuing threats to our civil liberties posed by, yes, the Obama administration.

It would do progressives well to keep the heat on Obama in this arena, just as it would do Obama well to give up the power-mongering.

Instead of making dubious deals on off-shore drilling in what will likely be a vain attempt to neutralize Republican opposition to his energy legislation, Obama could go a long way in taking the legs out from under the paranoid, anti-government right-wing grassroots by making a big show of restoring civil liberties and ending illegal detention and wiretapping.

I'm not saying that they'd feel any better about him -- and, goddess knows, a whole lot of them are fans of waterboarding Muslims -- but it would further expose the arbitrary application of human rights that so many wing-nuts embrace. (Rights for me, not thee.)

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