The president asserts new authority to open mail
There is a basic contradiction in the White House's explanation of President Bush's signing statement decreeing that federal agents do not need a search warrant to open and read first-class mail.
When questioned about the presidential assertion of access to private mail, press secretary Tony Snow replied: "This is not a change in law; this is not new." Then why did the president bother?
It's true that Bush has attached more than 750 signing statements to legislation -- more than all other presidents combined, according to the ABA. Are we to believe that Bush now adds signing statements just out of habit, even when they're not needed and break no new ground? If that were so, the president wouldn't need a signing statement, would he?
We would suggest that the president knew exactly what he was doing: seizing on the new Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act that crossed his desk to assert a new executive power.
Typically, presidents have used signing statements to instruct executive agencies how to carry out new laws. Bush's statements often reserve the right to revise, interpret or disregard laws on national security and constitutional grounds.
The president's signing statement reads: "The executive branch shall construe subsection 404(c) of title 39, as enacted by subsection 1010(e) of the act, which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection, in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."
Use the veto
If the president believes the law would not have given his administration the authority necessary to protect human life and safety, he should have vetoed the bill. This is a nation of laws, and laws are passed by the legislature and signed or rejected by the executive. The president's penchant for announcing his intention to construe a law this way or that is an insult to our constitutional form of government.
It is activist is the purest sense of a word that this president and many of his supporters use to pillory federal judges whom they accuse of making rather than interpreting the law.
Those who believe that the president and his various agents should be able to open first-class mail without a warrant should ask themselves what powers they'll be comfortable with when the next president or the president after that uses the Bush precedent to construe the laws that Congress passes.
As a nation, we are in danger of dismissing the important protections given to the American people by the founders as too quaint for the post 9/11 world. President Bush has stated numerous times that his highest duty is to protect the American people, but he has an equal duty to protect the Constitution, the document that defines Americans as a free people.
If it was not too onerous a burden for law enforcement agents to have to seek warrants before conducting searches in the 18th century, it should not be too much of a burden today.
Americans should not have to wonder if their mail is being read, their telephone calls or computer messages monitored or if they could be subject to arrest and detention without a warrant and without access to legal counsel and the courts.