Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Chicken Little Presidency

When historians dissect the Bush presidency, one of the most disturbing threads will be its attack on Americans' most fundamental rights.

Let's be clear from the outset that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Of course the post-9/11 world qualifies as extraordinary, and I would be a fool to suggest that it should be business as usual, especially given the dreadful job that U.S. intelligence agencies did in understanding that there was a deadly and growing threat to the American homeland in the form of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. (You'll recall that Condi Rice, then Bush's national security advisor, was by her own admission still fighting the Cold War.)

But the post-9/11 paradigm shift did not mean that a carefully constructed national consensus on the delicate balance between national security and constitutional rights, which was backed by laws that put limits on government spying on its own people, should be thrown out like a pair of old bell bottom jeans, or in the case of the Bush administration, simply ignored.

So when The New York Times reported last Friday that President Bush had signed a secret executive order in 2002 that pissed on that consensus and ignored those laws in allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on Americans wherever and whenver it pretty much damned well pleased, the story had an all too familiar ring to it.

After all, this is the administration that believes that habeas corpus is a detriment to law enforcement. That the Geneva Conventions is so much piffle. That torture is acceptable when U.S. agents are the torturers. That the draconian USA Patriot Act is necessary because a justice system that has well served the nation in peace, war and states of emergency for over 200 years is, well . . . suddenly not up to the task. That the rule of law, the one to which you and I are expected to adhere, can be subjugated at the whim of officials for whom politics trump all other concerns, including national security.

And let's not forget that the aforementioned consensus that grew out of NSA abuses during the Vietnam War, an era when the agency routinely spied on and made up enemies lists of people like antiwar activists and pacifists. (Psst! They're at it again.)

Let's also be clear that the aforementioned laws give the NSA and other intelligence agencies enormous latitude to go about their business. These agencies already can read your emails and listen in on your telephone conversations, but only if they get warrants from a special court created for just that purpose, a court that at least in principle tries to assure that the fragile balance between civil rights and civil wrongs is maintained.

There also were familiar themes in the Bush administration's tortured response to the Times story:

We again were assured that the administration was following those existing laws, which of course was an outright lie. More to the point of this post, the response was the latest chapter in the Bush administration's version of Chicken Little.

We again were told that an end run around the law was necessary because of an urgent national security threat, the same conveniently vague reason given every time the administration has chipped away at the sanctity of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, and other foundation stones of the Bill of Rights. It sounds so freaking trite, but aren't these the very rights that we are supposedly defending in the War on Terror?

There are indications that the GP as a whole believes that the administration's Chicken Little histrionics are no longer credibile. That particular boat no longer floats for Americans numbed by security alerts that change according to the exegencies of the political season and the bloody ebb and flow of a war in Iraq that we were seduced into supporting because of distortions and deceit.

While some of President Bush's poll numbers have rebounded and he recently has been given to bouts of humility and aw-shucksing over the cooked rationales for going to war, his trustworthiness numbers remain in the toilet. It's taken a few years, but few Americans now trust, let alone believe in him. And on the same day the Times broke the secret executive order story, the Republican controlled Senate -- one third of which stands for reelection next year -- rebuked him by voting down the Patriot Act.

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A footnote: My Dear Friend and Conscience (DF&C) is just back from a trip abroad and provides an additional perspective.

She acknowledges that the Bush administration, and for that matter many Americans, could give a rat's ass about the U.S.'s credibility abroad. But she correctly notes how sad it is, if not downright tragic, that in a global war on terrorism, the U.S. has lost the respect of much of the world because of its repeated willingness to sacrifice its own citizens' most cherished freedoms.

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