When Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, Americans won't just get a new president; they might finally learn the full extent of George W. Bush's warrantless domestic wiretapping.
Since The New York Times first revealed in 2005 that the NSA was eavesdropping on citizens' overseas phone calls and e-mail, few additional details about the massive "Terrorist Surveillance Program" have emerged. That's because the Bush administration has stonewalled, misled and denied documents to Congress, and subpoenaed the phone records of the investigative reporters.
Now privacy advocates are hopeful that President Obama will be more forthcoming with information. But for the quickest and most honest account of Bush's illegal policies, they say don't look to the incoming president. Watch instead for the hidden army of would-be whistle-blowers who've been waiting for Inauguration Day to open the spigot on the truth.
"I'd bet there are a lot of career employees in the intelligence agencies who'll be glad to see Obama take the oath so they can finally speak out against all this illegal spying and get back to their real mission," says Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU's Washington D.C. legislative director.
New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh already has a slew of sources waiting to spill the Bush administration's darkest secrets, he said in an interview last month. "You cannot believe how many people have told me to call them on January 20. [They say,] 'You wanna know about abuses and violations? Call me then.'"
So far, virtually everything we know about the NSA's warrantless surveillance has come from whistle-blowers.
Telecom executives told USA Today that they had turned over billions of phone records to the government. Former AT&T employee Mark Klein provided wiring diagrams detailing an Internet-spying room in a San Francisco switching facility. And one Justice Department attorney had his house raided and his children's computers seized as part of the FBI's probe into who leaked the warrantless spying to The New York Times. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales even suggested the reporters could be prosecuted under antiquated treason statutes.
If new whistle-blowers do emerge, Fredrickson hopes the additional information will spur Congress to form a new Church Committee -- the 1970s bipartisan committee that investigated and condemned the government's secret spying on peace activists, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other political figures.
But even if the anticipated flood of leaks doesn't materialize, advocates hope that Obama and the Democratic Congress will get around to airing out the White House closet anyway. "Obama has pledged a lot more openness," says Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was the first to file a federal lawsuit over the illegal eavesdropping.
One encouraging sign for civil liberties groups is that John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, is a key figure in Obama's transition team, which will staff and set priorities for the new administration. The center was a tough and influential critic of the Bush administration's warrantless spying.