'Bush's Law' chilling

Eric Lichtblau is used to being cast as a hero or a villain for his reporting about the war on terror. This year, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, predicted that "some Americans are going to die" because of the public debate that resulted when Lichtblau and his New York Times colleague James Risen disclosed the existence of the Bush administration's secret surveillance program; for the same articles, Lichtblau and Risen won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Now Lichtblau has produced a book about his experiences, "Bush's Law." It is a gripping account of Lichtblau's efforts to expose various forms of secret surveillance and the Bush administration's Nixonian efforts to retaliate against him and other critics: "All the President's Men" for an age of terror.

But this book offers much more than a journalist's well-earned victory lap. Lichtblau also documents, with scrupulous detail, the broader costs of the Bush administration's excesses for innocent victims and for the rule of law. He has especially memorable accounts of some of the 2,700 men U.S. authorities locked up after Sept. 11; most were never shown to have connections to terrorism.

Lichtblau also describes the many innocent victims whose e-mail messages, phone calls and political activities were secretly monitored. More than 180 peaceful groups opposed to the Iraq war ended up in the Pentagon's Talon database, which was designed to collect leads that might be related to terrorism. (It included the names of people at anti-war rallies.) And by Lichtblau's estimate "several thousand" people in the United States had their phone calls and e-mail secretly monitored without warrants because of suspected ties to terrorism.

After reporting about the FBI's interest in anti-war demonstrators, Lichtblau himself saw his press pass canceled by the Justice Department's director of public affairs.

That was just a warm-up for the titanic battle to come, pitting Bush and his top advisers against the editors of The Times, as the journalists decided whether to publish the article by Lichtblau and Risen that disclosed the secret surveillance program. In a series of meetings that lasted 14 months, beginning weeks before the 2004 presidential elections, Bush and 10 senior advisers made personal appeals to The Times not to run the article.

Lichtblau's reporting revealed that there were deep divisions about the program's legality at the highest levels of the administration. And when Lichtblau learned that administration officials had discussed seeking an injunction against The Times, just as President Nixon had tried to enjoin the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the tactic helped seal The Times' decision to publish the article and to post it first on the Web.

Lichtblau argues that the administration's security arguments were overblown: The government had already pledged to eavesdrop on al-Qaida, so it wasn't news to anyone that it was making good on the pledge. The news was that it was refusing to get court orders to do so, despite Bush's public claims to the contrary. Thanks to the reporting by Lichtblau and Risen, we know that Bush and his aides approved a secret eavesdropping program that many of his own top lawyers thought was illegal, lied about it to the media and the public, and then attacked the journalists who disclosed it.