From the Washington Post, via, oh, just about every Lefty blogger there is (let's use AmericaBlog):
The law governing clandestine surveillance in the United States, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, prohibits conducting electronic surveillance not authorized by statute. A government agent can try to avoid prosecution if he can show he was "engaged in the course of his official duties and the electronic surveillance was authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order of a court of competent jurisdiction," according to the law.
"This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration," said [Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies at George Washington University], who has been sharply critical of the administration's surveillance and detention policies. "It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans."
President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 authorizing the NSA to engage in what is essentially an illegal activity. Further, it appears that the New York Times was aware of the policy and chose to ignore reporting it at the request of the White House. It appears possible that the New York Times may have been aware of this information prior to the 2004 election.
Essentially what this amounts to is a crystal clear violation of the separation of powers in the Constitution. The President, by authorizing the NSA to undertake this activity, has effectively reversed a law passed by Congress. The President has openly stationed himself above the law, which is no surprise, given that administration officials, such as Cheney and Gonzalez, have been supporting this expanded role of the Executive since the beginning of the war. They argue, and Bush obviously agrees, that the President should have practically limitless power to prosecute the War on Terror without the oversight of Congress. There is absolutely no way to defend this under any interpretation of the Constitution, even by those conservatives normally given to strict reconstructionism.
There occasionally appears issues in the public arena that cut directly to the core of our national identity, and this is one of those issues. At certain points there is a hard line that demarcates where democracy ends and totalitarianism begins and the United States has now skirted awfully close to that line. The notion that military endeavors should warrant a suspension of both laws and civil rights is the type of public policy favored by some very unsavory world leaders of the past 100 years. This is not a road that the United States can afford to travel down very far.
The most frightening part of this story is not the willingness of the President to break the law to forward his national security policy. It's not even that the New York Times was willing, at the request of the White House, to sit on a story that would have likely had an impact on the 2004 election. Both of these things are hair-raising enough. But the truly horrifying aspect of this story is that a large number of Americans are going to read about this and say "So what?" George W. Bush is doing Osama bin Ladin's work by destroying the freedoms that make this country America and a large number of Americans will support him while as he does. They can't understand that without those freedoms, we have nothing left worth protecting from terrorism anyway.
In closing, I think Ben Franklin said it best:
They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.