Listen. What you are about to hear is the sound of John McCain flip-flopping his position on one of America's most cherished ideals.

A top McCain advisor says the Republican presidential candidate agrees with President Bush's outrageous program of wiretapping Americans' overseas conversations without warrants.

McCain previously had been critical of the Bush administration's unilateral decision, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to let the National Security Agency eavesdrop on untold numbers of citizens.

Before, McCain talked of the need for presidents to obey the law, just as other Americans must do.

But now he suggests that a McCain White House would pursue the same unchecked spy powers as Bush.

His flip-flop isn't as significant as the fact that McCain has gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Bush's surveillance effort was an unnecessary end-run around the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which was created 30 years ago to supervise antiterror investigations.

Even though administration officials contend they don't have the time to seek court approval amid a climate of national crisis, the fact remains that the president can order spying on an emergency basis and then seek retroactive court approval. The FISA court almost never rejects such a request.

In taking steps to safeguard the nation against another terrorist attack, there's no need for the wholesale erosion of Americans' civil liberties.

That's more than just a debating point in the presidential campaign, as well. How so? Because Congress has yet to break an impasse over renewing the nation's antiterror surveillance law.

The law lapsed during the winter after the Senate and Bush balked at proposals to update FISA law without a blanket grant of immunity to telecom companies being sued for aiding in warrantless spying.

In only weeks, it will become urgent to either resolve the dispute or extend the FISA law temporarily. That's when secret wiretapping orders will begin to lapse, potentially leaving U.S. agents out of the loop should terrorists communicate new plots.

Reasonable ways can be found to shield the telecoms from huge damage claims, while also assuring that the nation gets an accounting of how far past domestic spying went. With McCain now saying he supports no-warrant spying, it's even more important for Congress to craft new surveillance rules that respect the rule of law.