December 20, 2005

Spying On Ourselves

From guest writer, Bob Warren, the Old Pessimist

It has not been a good two months for The Dubya’s Administration: the havoc wrecked by Katrina-Rita and the unresolved catastrophic failure of FEMA and the SBA to provide necessary assistance with at least some sense of dispatch; the imbroglio over how, or even if to rebuild the city of New Orleans; Scooter Libby’s indictment and Karl Rove’s continuing problems with Mr. Fitzgerald; increasing American casualties in Iraq and the seeming inability of the Coalition forces to effectively counter the insurgents’ continuing attacks; and further disquieting revelations about the government’s secret ‘rendition-for-torture’ escapades, involving the delivery of suspected terrorists (disenfranchised so-called ‘enemy combatants’) to black hole torment sites across the world.

Now comes the revelation, amidst the heated debate on Capitol Hill as to whether or not to extend various provisions of the so-called Patriot Act, that the super-secret National Security Agency has been tasked by the President to use the most sophisticated electronic intercept apparatus in the world to eavesdrop on domestic conversations without a warrant from the super-duper secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which has direct, hands-on oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

This controversy, one which revolves within the orbit of the protections afforded to U.S. citizens by the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, is itself shrouded and masked by notions of national security as it applies to the ever-dreaded, much ballyhooed, persistent War on Terrorism that followed the tragedy of NineEleven.

But the facts, if not their application, are relatively straight-forward and simple to understand. First, as Americans we are shielded by the Bill of Rights from unwarranted (forgive the pun) searches and seizures. Before any law enforcement (or intelligence) agents can barge into your house or office or boat or hideaway cabin in the woods or root through the trunk of your car or tap your phone or read your e-mail, they first must obtain a warrant from a designated member of the judiciary allowing them to do so, one based on notions of ‘probable cause.’ Over the years this has become a highly refined concept, subject to numerous U.S. Supreme Court opinions; there is no question but that its application is highly nuanced with carefully delineated exceptions. Nonetheless, no one knowledgeable in the law will argue that, on the whole, its practice is not both effective and respected by law enforcement authorities.

Secondly, since the shenanigans of the Nixon White House there has existed firm protection from government spying on its citizens for any reason, absent specific judicial sanction. (Remember the plumber’s ill-fated burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in retaliation for Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post?) For the past 25 years or more, the National Security Agency has thought to have been scrupulous in keeping hands off any domestic Signet activities.

The charge, first published by the New York Times on 12/15/05 in a lead article by James Risen and Eric Lichtbau, contends that, since early 2002, at any given moment NSA is eavesdropping without warrants on up to 500 people in the United States pursuant to what the Agency calls ‘a special collection program’ ordered and authorized by the President. The total number of Americans monitored without warrant and without their knowledge is unknown, since various ‘targets’ are placed on and removed from the list at different times. There may have been thousands of individual targets.

In pursuit of his War on Terrorism, Mr. Bush is pressing his presidential prerogatives to the limit, arguably beyond the boundaries set by statutory law and the Constitution. He appears to be taking a leaf from Tricky Dick’s book. As former President Nixon famously remarked in an interview with David Frost on May 19, 1977, “When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” There was an echo of those sentiments last week from none other than Senator Trent Lott who, remarking on the breaking news regarding NSA’s warrantless domestic surveillance procedures, observed: “I don’t agree with the libertarians. I want my security first. I’ll deal with the details after that.” [Source: Washington Post, 12/17/05, A01]

I know, I know, these are just a bunch of dangerous terrorists that we’re chasing here, people who want to bring down America, fanatics who have no truck with our notion of fair play, let alone with constitutional safeguards. Screw them. This is the right place to waive the rules.

Up to a point that’s true, of course, but so what? Where, when, and how do we draw the line, and most importantly, who makes that decision? The slow but persistent erosion of the rights and privileges that have shaped our society, that provide bedrock, fundamental protection for you and me, are under attack by an Administration that has become drunk on the influence of executive power and privilege. The operative theory? Link ‘terrorism’ with ‘national security’ and there is adequate justification for any measure, extralegal or not.

There is much presidential rhetoric Out There. As quoted by Christine Gauser in the New York Times on 12/16/05, President Bush made the following statement on ‘The News Hour with Jim Lehrer’ that evening: “We don’t talk about sources and methods. Don’t talk about ongoing intelligence operations. I know there is speculation. But it’s important for the American people to understand that we will do - or I use my powers to protect us, and I will do so under the law, and that’s important for our citizens to understand.” Given the source and given his history to date in the White House, I take scant comfort from such assurances, even if I can follow the tortured syntax.

The American public deserves to know what actions are being taken in furtherance of the War on Terrorism, since these measures are arguably as much a potential threat to our rights as to those of our sworn enemies. To think otherwise, to be unresponsive to this and similar issues, is to threaten ourselves. As repeatedly said here, to resort to such tactics inevitably leads Us to become Them. It’s not the intelligence that we seek to gain that I question — after all, it was a lack of credible intelligence that led us into this mess in the first place. Nor do I argue that the government must bare its intelligence secrets to public scrutiny. But its methodology in obtaining that intelligence, whether it’s torturing prisoners in Black Holes abroad or impermissibly eavesdropping on its own citizens at home, is a public issue, one that demands a thorough explanation from the Administration, preferably from a spokesperson who can communicate clearly, using intelligible English.

I close with three quotes from three leaders of the Third Reich. The first is from former Reichsmarshall Herman Göring; the second is from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda; the third is from der Führer himself:

“Naturally the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is to tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works in any country.” - Herman Göring, Reichsmarshall

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important fro the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” - Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda

“What luck for the rulers that men do not think.” - Adolf Hitler

[Source for each of the above:]

Am I comparing the Bush Administration to the Third Reich? Certainly not as an absolute. But if the comparison is limited to governmental secrecy, high-level manipulation of public opinion, questioning the right to dissent and to inquire, then the answer is a qualified “Yes.” National security, the War on Terrorism, extralegal methods of investigation (perhaps including sanctioned torture), repression of the Enemy Within, dissent as unpatriotic provocation — these echoes of another era are too compelling to dismiss. Individual rights sacrificed for the greater national good? Think back to Hitler’s Germany in, say, 1937, or Mussolini’s Italy in 1929-1931.

We can blame the Terrorists for many things, but we can’t blame them for ourselves — or can we?

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