Civil liberties don't matter much 'after you're dead,' Cornyn says on spy case

Senators launched new salvos in the battle over national security and civil liberties yesterday as recent revelations of domestic spying continued to color the chamber’s stalemate on an extension of the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act.

“None of your civil liberties matter much after you’re dead,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former judge and close ally of the president who sits on the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who has led a bipartisan filibuster against a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, quoted Patrick Henry, an icon of the American Revolution, in response: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

He called Cornyn’s comments “a retreat from who we are and who we should be.”

The New York Times reported last week that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on American citizens in the United States for several years without court permission under authority granted in executive orders signed by President Bush.

“This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives,” Bush said in a rare live weekly radio address Saturday in which he acknowledged giving the NSA electronic-eavesdropping power without court approval.

Bush said yesterday that the authority derives from presidential powers granted under the Constitution and a congressional “use of force” resolution adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist assault.

“I believe this interpretation of the Constitution is both incorrect and dangerous, and I am requesting an inquiry into this issue,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

“The president’s justification … is without merit,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Cornyn, who agreed with the White House analysis of the president’s powers, called for an investigation into how the Times obtained its information.

A small band of Republicans has joined most Senate Democrats in a filibuster of the Patriot Act reauthorization.

On Friday, the Senate rejected 52-47 a motion to cut off debate and turn to an immediate vote on the underlying legislation. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) sided with the filibusterers for procedural reasons. Under Senate rules, the motion needed 60 votes to be approved.

Since that motion went down Friday, Democrats have attempted several times by unanimous consent to extend current law for a short period, but Republicans objected to that approach each time. Bush has repeatedly called on the Senate to approve the reauthorization and has said he would not sign a short-term extension.

“If people want to play politics with the Patriot Act, it’s … not in the best interests of the country,” Bush said at a press conference yesterday.

But Feingold said blame should be directed toward Bush if provisions set to expire at the end of the year lapse.
“It’s the president who wants to play chicken here,” Feingold said.