The president was talking about the depth of his commitment to protecting the American people from future terrorist attacks. That commitment, without any doubt, is sincere, passionate and all-encompassing. But it also stands at odds with Bush's disinterest in governing and his administration's proven inability to do it.
None of this is surprising. George Bush and Dick Cheney came to Washington, after all, not to run the government but to run it down.
They figured maybe they'd get a couple of Supreme Court nominations, and maybe get a shot at taking out Saddam, but the main mission of Bush and Cheney was to leave Washington less than they found it.
And they wasted no time getting down to it, most triumphantly with their massive tax cuts of 2001. The cuts would leave less revenue to pay for federal programs, saddle future presidents with crippling deficits and debt-interest payments, make the middle class pay more and lighten the load on the rich.
Bush/Cheney also packed federal departments - EPA, Justice, State, FEMA, Defense and others - with multiple layers of true-believing appointees. Their job was to freeze out career public servants and radically shift their institutions from active mode to passive to somnolent in such areas as environmental protection, voting/civil rights and social services.
But Osama bin Laden plotted while Bush worked out, and on September 11, 2001, the Saudi-born terrorist changed everything for the president who blew into Washington looking to dismantle the infrastructure. Suddenly, Bush and his fellow would-be pillagers had to figure out how to marshal the manifold resources of government - including those experienced, dedicated public servants previously regarded as quaint anachronisms - to actually accomplish things.
It's no wonder, then, that the Bush team mangled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, as documented in a new 600-page report written by Republican members of a select House of Representatives committee. No wonder that a centerpiece of Bush's presidency, the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, has proved to be a break-the-bank boondoggle. No wonder that America now finds itself ensnared in the deadly folly of Iraq, with thousands of lives lost, reconstruction hopelessly mismanaged and billions of dollars missing and/or stolen.
In an article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, Paul R. Pillar explains how Bush/Cheney's twisted approach to intelligence produced the Iraq disaster: "The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made," he writes.
Pillar should know: He retired last year after 28 years with the CIA, the last six of them as the senior analyst responsible for coordinating information and data on the Middle East from America's 15 different intelligence agencies.
Pillar readily acknowledges some incorrect assessments about Iraq by the intelligence community, but he says that those mistakes were mostly irrelevant because Bush didn't base his decision to invade Iraq on intelligence anyway.
And one enormously important thing that the intelligence community got right - that there was no evidence of a meaningful working relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida - Bush disregarded. Indeed, he told the world exactly the opposite, and most of us believed him, myself included.
This rehash of the last five years of failure, incompetence and twisting of truth by Bush and his administration casts a different kind of light on the National Security Agency no-warrant spying operation Bush secretly authorized more than four years ago: Even assuming it's legal, what are the chances that the Bush team is managing it with the care, precision and caution required of a program with such a massive potential for abuse? Two chances, as my brother likes to say: Slim and none.
Slim just left town.
In 2004, as the Washington Post reported last week, Justice Department lawyer James A. Baker discovered that a key safeguard built into the spying program had been "rendered useless." The NSA had failed to abide by an agreement to tell the Justice Department who was under surveillance without warrants. As a result, tainted evidence might very well have compromised the work of America's special intelligence court. Not surprisingly, when Baker revealed what he had learned to the court's presiding judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, she was "infuriated," the paper reported.
More incompetence, this time in the management of what Bush is billing as an essential element of national security operations.
Meanwhile, the question of the NSA's program legality is far from settled, and, contrary to Bush/Cheney's predictable attacks on Democrats, plenty of hardcore conservatives in and out of government doubt its wisdom. Among them, according to a Boston Globe story last week, are Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform), Paul Weyrich (Free Congress Foundation), Larry Pratt (Gun Owners of America), David Keene (American Conservative Union) and Bob Barr, the former Georgia congressman who helped direct the successful 1998 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton.
There is, I think, a case to be made that the NSA program is legal. It's a weak case - flimsy and deeply flawed, even - but at the very least it's enough to protect Bush against ridiculous charges that authorizing it is an impeachable offense.
What Bush doesn't seem to understand, however, is that in the American system of government, he doesn't get the last word on this. He can claim that the NSA program is legal. He can claim that how he runs national security programs is nobody else's business. He can even claim that his lawyers back him up. But him saying it doesn't make it so.
The Constitution doesn't give the president all the power, just some of it. Bush isn't the judge of the matter, just one of the parties to a dispute. We have a system for resolving such disputes, and it involves the three branches of government, not just one.
Congress, in recent weeks, seems to have rediscovered a body part that had atrophied over the last five years: the spine. With Bush digging in, Congress will have to stand tall if America is to stand a chance at reining in a feckless presidency whose bungling makes us less safe, not safer.
Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org." Target="_BLANK">email@example.com.