IN THE NEWS
With every passing week this November and December, we learn more about the extraordinary measures the Bush Administration has taken since 9/11. Secret detention centers, the Department of Defense's domestic surveillance programs, the NSA's domestic surveillance programs, and now the complete bypassing of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts.
But has any of these previously secret programs made a difference? The Administration claims that they have, but there is no way to tell. What is clear from the Administration's own statements is the following:
- Senior White House officials believe that, in wartime, normal constraints imposed by the US Constitution, military codes of ethics, Congressional oversight, and treaties and agreements that the United States no longer apply.
- Further, in the Administration's view, this suspension of the rules applies equally to foreign and domestic policy. In other words, the only justification the White House feels it needs to spy on Americans is what the President decides is in the national interest.
- Indeed, the Administration feels that it can review the Constitutionality or legality of a decision solely within the executive branch, without reference to the other two branches of government.
- According to the White House, these sweeping powers remain in force as long as Al Qaeda or terrorist organizations like it exist.
If you don't believe that I'm representing the Administration's position fairly, read the articles I've linked in this posting. Also, ask yourself why the White House didn't direct its subordinates to figure out how to make the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts work more efficiently, if indeed they couldn't keep up with some purported urgent demand.
Of course, the urgent demand isn't even clear. For the moment, let's leave aside the gulf between, on the one side, the Administration's policies, and on the other side, the Constitution, US federal law, and international agreements like the Geneva Conventions. Where's the evidence that there was even any need to take these steps? Where are the convictions of major terrorist suspects? (As opposed to, say, convictions in Minnesota and Florida which were later overturned.) Where are the credible tales of terrorist attacks thwarted, thanks to the PATRIOT Act and other extraordinary measures? Since we know the harm these policies have inflicted on particular individuals and the body politic, where is evidence of any good that they've done?
If you buy the argument, They can't tell you any of those details--they're secret, I commend you to look at how the Europeans and the Israelis handle terrorist threats. Secrecy is an important part of military, intelligence, police, and legal actions against terrorists--to a point. After the attack has been prevented, the suspect has been arrested, or the trial is over, the details are known. Maybe not every detail, so that undercover agents and informants are protected. But these governments make enough facts available so that their own citizens can judge whether or not the incumbent leaders have acted properly and effectively. What's striking, perhaps, about the age in which we live is how poorly the political class in this country has risen to the defense of democracy and the rule of law as most effective measures against terrorists, not quaint relics of a bygone age.
The policies and organizations that the Administration hastily slapped together in response to 9/11 have, by and large failed, often because were hastily slapped together. The Department of Homeland Security has proven to be a boondoggle, not a bulwark. The Administration's slipshod policies have led to numerous mistakes, such as the revelation that a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay was originally jailed by the Taliban for trying to kill Osama bin Laden. could go on--but I have, in about a year and a half of postings in this blog. The problems go beyond the unavoidable errors that every government commits. The Administration has unleashed a counterterrorism strategy riven with defects, which is why the errors and failures far outnumber the successes. (Please do not invoke the "snapping your fingers to keep the tigers away" defense. If that were the case, Bill Clinton still has a better counterterrorism record, measured in the number of years between major terrorist incidents committed by Islamists within the United States.)
So, should anyone be surprised that many Republicans are edging away from the White House, in spite of the political vendettas they face from within their own party? The PATRIOT Act failed to be renewed. A whole lot of Republican senators voted for the McCain anti-torture amendment. Republican opinion-makers are not rising in defense of the Bush Administration's domestic espionage. Republicans joined with Democrats on the 9/11 Commission to give the White House a failing grade on counter-proliferation, real homeland security (like airline passenger screening), and many other critical questions of national security.
In short, many members of the US polticial elite gave the Bush team the benefit of the doubt for a while, but not any longer. If that's correct, we need to see the Washington counter-elite do more than express its doubts through shadow-plays in the headlines and the Sunday morning talk shows. John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election because he didn't convince people that, however good his critique of the war in Iraq, he had a better plan. The same rule applies to the McCains in the counter-elite. It's one thing to win momentary applause for a stance. It's a whole other thing, beyond one anti-torture amendment, to clean up our national security mess.