Column for 12 August, 2007
“Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”
The latest uproar over the Bush Administration’s wiretapping policy came and went so fast, most people missed it. Even now, the issue is muted, in part due to the White House’s dedicated spin-doctoring, claiming that the new law would only affect a few foreigners. That is, of course, a bald-faced lie, but George W. Bush and his minions now lie so often, so outrageously and with such regularity, it’s doubtful even they would recognize the truth anymore even if it jumped up and bit them. Here’s what happened: a top-secret court which overseas wiretapping by US intelligence services (the FISA Court) issued a top-secret ruling limiting the White House’s ability to wiretap conversations between people overseas and people in the United States without obtaining a warrant first. How do we know about this top-secret ruling from a top-secret court? Why, because Cong. John Boehner the Republican House Minority Leader blabbed all about it on FOX News, apparently violating Federal law in the process. Now, bear in mind, this debate is not about wire-tapping suspected terrorists. It’s about the ability of the Federal government to wiretap American citizens WITHOUT A WARRANT. There is virtually no disagreement that the President can, and should, use wiretaps against people who are suspected of being terrorists, or of acting to help terrorists. The only question is whether or not the government should have to seek a warrant from the top-secret FISA court before wire-tapping. Actually, the previous law was so accommodating, it even allowed the government to seek a warrant AFTER the wire-tapping in cases of emergency. Immediately after this no-longer-secret ruling, the White House and its trained monkeys in the Right Wing Noise Machine went into high-gear, all but accusing Democrats of being personally liable for any future terrorist attacks if they did not immediately pass a law essentially overturning the FISA judge’s opinion. President Bush said he would keep Congress in session over the August recess if they didn’t pass the bill he wanted. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell cut a deal with Congress to preserve at least some judicial oversight of the program, but Bush shot it down. The bill that did pass, the repulsively misnamed Protect America Act of 2007, goes far beyond a mere technical correction and gives the President powers he didn’t have even before the FISA Court ruling. The government can now eavesdrop on electronic communications of any kind involving anyone “reasonably believed to be outside the United States,” whether they are suspected of having anything to do with terrorism or not. And NONE of this is subject to review by anyone…other than that well-known guardian of the Constitution, Alberto Gonzales. So why is this bad? First, I would argue that anytime the government has the power to do anything without oversight or accountability, that’s a bad thing. In the words of Machiavelli, “It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.” Second, historically, the Federal government has always abused its authority to spy on Americans, including J. Edgar Hoover using his COINTELPRO operation to harass anti-war protestors and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., among many, many others. More recently, the FBI has admitted to violating its own rules on data mining under the Patriot Act over a thousand times. And that’s just what they’ll admit to. And, third, I ask my Republican brethren the question I often asked when they are insisting that the President be invested with some new pharaoh-like power: Would you trust Hillary Clinton with this? If your answer is anything other than an enthusiastic “yes,” then I submit that no President should have this kind of unchecked, unsupervised power.
So what happened to the Democrats on this issue? Why did so many of them (including, to his shame, Cong. Chet Edwards) vote for this abomination on the Bill of Rights, after having been elected, among other reasons, because people were sick of this kind of abuse? Why would they kowtow to a President whose support is currently limited to three guys wearing tin-foil hats somewhere in Utah? There are two theories. One is that the Democrats are absolutely terrified of getting blamed by the Republicans if there’s another terrorist attack on the United States. On that score, they can relax. The GOP is going to blame the Democrats if (God forbid) there’s another terrorist attack in this country no matter what. That’s just how they operate. Bipartisanship is for suckers. This is the same party whose leading guru, Grover Norquist, compared bipartisanship to date rape, after all. In way, it’s kind of touching how naïve some Democrats, even long-established political veterans, are about the Republicans. They insist on believing that their opponents are honorable people who want to do the right thing, instead of the cynical gang of authoritarian opportunistic thugs the modern Republic Party has actually degenerated into. The second theory is that Democrats were rolled on parliamentary procedure and fell for a sucker’s bet that involved a Trojan horse bill that Democrats in iffy districts could safely vote for, knowing it would never pass. In a way, this would be worse if true, since the Democratic leadership in the House is hardly a crew of naïfs just tumbled out of the turnip truck; they have literally decades of experience behind them. If the Republicans in Congress have developed a more refined legislative strategy than simply blocking everything that moves, it’s not a good sign that Democrats got bushwhacked by it.
If Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid expect to hold Congress next year, let alone win the White House, they are going to have take off the kid gloves, recognize that the overwhelming majority of the country supports their position on the issues (if not Congress itself) and stop trying to negotiate with a President who thinks he’s King George III and a Republican opposition willing to follow him lemming-like over the cliff of electoral oblivion. And while they’re at it, they might try fighting for the Constitution they swore an oath to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.