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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin thinks that the recent revelations about secret domestic surveillance of Americans are alarming – and at the same time – very “deja-vu”.

(KUNIN) Every school child learns about the balance of powers, the brilliant centerpiece of our Constitution. No branch of government – not the judiciary, the legislative or the executive – would overpower the others.

Having just declared themselves free of King George, the founders made certain that executive power would be held in check.

The creative tension among the three branches has generally kept us free from the abuse of power by any one branch.

It’s important to remind ourselves of the checks and balances in our Constitution at a time when the power of the executive is being exercised in ways that threaten both our civil liberties and due process.

In the name of national security, the President has made a series of decisions, which only now are being exposed.

He has defended his right to use the national security agency, which usually spies abroad, to spy on Americans in this country.

He has not denied that detainees have been shipped to secret prisons in other countries that allow torture.

He is pushing rapid and total renewal of the Patriot Act, fighting amendments that could safeguard some civil liberties.

He has left Americans in the dark about the use of torture in American-run prisons, only reluctantly acceding to the McCain bill, which would limit the use of torture.

Most recently, justifying spying on Americans, he cited the 2001 Congressional resolution giving authority to use military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. He interpreted it as a blank check for excutive power. “We are at war, and we must protect America’s secrets,” he declared.

Spying on Americans is possible under the law, but only with a search warrant: an example of executive power checked by the judiciary.

Keeping secrets is legal and often necessary, if members of Congress are informed: an example of executive power checked by the legislative.

Neither of these checks was in play with the President’s recent decisions.

America has shifted the balance of powers and stepped over the line between national security and civil liberties before – the Alien and Sedition Act of 1789, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the anti-communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, which ruined so many lives.

Each decision was made in the name of national security. Each decision gave too much power to one branch of government, only to be corrected later by another. And each decision left a shameful blot on the history of American democracy.

Let us not – in the name of protecting our country from terrorism – make the same mistake again.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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