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Issue Date:  January 6, 2006

The latest Bush threat to democracy


Little else is left to say to an administration that:

  • Led a country into war on false premises;
  • Continues to link the war against terrorism with the war in Iraq when the two had no relationship at the outset;
  • Dismisses the Geneva Conventions and holds prisoners incognito for years, without charges or access to legal representation;
  • Places detainees on planes bound for foreign countries known for torture and abuse of prisoners;
  • Maintains secret CIA prisons on foreign soil;
  • Subverts laws guarding the civil liberties of U.S. citizens, including searches of personal records and infiltration of religious and peace groups by the FBI;
  • Defers to a vice president who argues for legal exceptions so that U.S. personnel can engage in torture;
  • And has, at various times, created mechanisms to plant false news reports domestically and overseas and most recently paid to have stories planted in the Iraqi press.

Where are we headed?

To this deeply disturbing list of human rights abuses and violations of civil liberties add the most recent revelations that President Bush, under the influence of and with the encouragement of Vice President Cheney, personally approved widespread electronic eavesdropping on Americans.

We may not have reached, yet, the “Newspeak” or “telescreens” of 1984, but the level of deception is certainly approaching Orwellian dimensions when a president who casts himself as a champion of global democracy could orchestrate so much that is fundamentally destructive of democracy.

Cheney, it is said, has long had as a personal ambition the restoration of presidential power, which he thinks was unreasonably diminished in the wake of executive branch lying and deception during the Vietnam and Watergate eras. The need for restraining presidential power, however, is made clear by President Bush’s now extensively documented inclination to view his prerogatives regarding the ordering of search, seizure, imprisonment and interrogation with no regard for the limits of federal and international law accepted by predecessors.

Law already exists granting the president great latitude in using the super-secret National Security Agency to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens. All the government must do is present probable cause that someone is linked to terrorist or other activities to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court and obtain a warrant to do the snooping.

According to intelligence expert James Bamford, writing in the Dec. 25 issue of The New York Times, “The court rarely turns the government down. Since it was established in 1978, the court has granted about 19,000 warrants; it has only rejected five.”

Moreover, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who believes the war on terror justifies domestic eavesdropping, still believes it would not place an undue burden on the government to seek warrants. Bush thinks otherwise. He believes that the ill-defined and limitless war on terror gives him the authority to order eavesdropping without resort to the courts. He asks us to trust him; he is simply trying to protect us.

What the president apparently refuses to acknowledge is that his undermining of due process and civil liberties, the deep invasion of privacy that he wants unchecked power to authorize, is as least as dangerous to democracy as any terrorist threat.

As Bamford noted, the National Security Agency was established at a time when eavesdropping meant listening in on telephone calls or intercepting telegrams.

“But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cell phones, the agency virtually has the ability to get inside a person’s mind.”

The president justifies his activity in part by noting that he consulted with congressional leaders who agreed with his assertion that he had the authority to do domestic spying. Some congressional leaders dispute the president’s version of those meetings. All of it is complicated, of course, by the fact that top-secret matters were under discussion.

We agree with Republican Sen. Arlen Specter’s initial reaction to the revelation of the government’s eavesdropping on Americans: Something is wrong and needs to be investigated.

The investigation should include testimony from anyone -- Democrat or Republican -- who was in on the decision, who acquiesced to it or who carried it out.

Thirty years ago, Bamford writes, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) investigated the National Security Agency “and came away stunned.”

He quotes Church saying: “That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: Telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

Bush tells us that he is protecting us from terrorists. But without even the minimal protection of the secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, how do we know what criteria are used to determine national security threats? Who’s there to protect against the temptation to use the technology for political ends? Exactly what, in these days of secret detentions and rendition flights, makes for an enemy of the state?

At what point do we begin to call what’s happening a dangerous abuse of power and demand accountability?

It is time.

National Catholic Reporter, January 6, 2006

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