Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Bush argues that 9/11 created the need for domestic spying program. Problem is he authorized it BEFORE 9/11.
January 24, 2005
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers
Let's try to puzzle out together some recent political events. The unifying thread will appear; it always does because it's always there, even if sometimes out of conscious reach.
1. Why would the Bush Administration deliberately break the law by engaging in electronic surveillance of Americans without getting the required court warrants?
Since the rubber-stamp FISA court had turned down only five applications for domestic spying warrants out of about 15,000 since its inception in 1979, why wouldn't the Bush Administration automatically go to it for the required warrants? One implication, certainly, is that even the amenable FISA court might rebel when it found out the true motives and scope of the ongoing domestic spying, for, you see, Bush's order to NSA to engage in massive communication surveillance preceded 9/11. (See Jason Leopold's "Bush Authorized Domestic Spying Before 9/11.")
The Busheviks say they decided not to use FISA because the government needs the speed and flexibility to move quickly, and agents can't keep running to the secret court each time. But the law has a built-in proviso that permits NSA to move quickly in an emergency and fill out the required paperwork later, within three days.
The technology is now much more advanced that it was in the old "wire-tapping" days, when you wanted to listen in on someone's bedroom or office phone. Now humongous computer banks data-mine millions of phone calls (land-line, cell, satellite) and email messages to and from Americans; they sweep up, and government agents check out, masses of "suspects," based on words or patterns unearthed by the data-mining programs. Of course, the vast majority of those "clues" turn out to be worthless. (See "Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends.") Yet, regardless of that reality and the invasion of ordinary citizens' privacy, the Bush Administration continues the massive intercepts.
Rather than stay within the law by going to Congress and saying "Look, the technology now requires blanket court warrants, so please amend the FISA bill," the Bush Administration simply chose to ignore all attempts to stay within the law. They deliberately did not go to go to FISA court for permission, or to Congress for rewriting the authorization bill - and they did (and are still doing) everything possible to keep the issue from going into the federal courts. In deepest secrecy, they made themselves the law and simply carried on, all the while trying to get into place their Federalist Society-type judges, who would rule in favor of the President, always.
The Bush Bunker crew wants the freedom desired by all authoritarian leaders: to act on their own, free of judicial or legislative restraints. Arrogant and insecure, they need to know what everyone is thinking and doing, as a means of enhancing and protecting their political power. If they accidentally wind up getting some actionable intelligence about foreign terrorists, all the better.
So the short answer to the question as to why they Bush Administration broke the law is that they felt they could get away with this top-secret snooping on American citizens without anyone ever finding out. Once the word leaked about what they actually were doing, they hauled out the cockamamie "unitary executive" theory that asserts the President can violate whatever laws he wants, whenever he wants to, because he's "commander-in-chief" during "wartime." (The "war," never declared by Congress, is Bush's "war on terrorism," which, we're told, will last forever.)
The Bush Administration utilized the same theory to justify Bush's authorization of torture of prisoners in U.S. care. And, as political insurance, it added one more rationale for the NSA spying: With a major leap in interpretation, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for decades a Bush toady, claims that the post-9/11 resolution authorizing Bush to use "force" against al Qaida provides even more justification to monitor U.S. citizens' communications. Even if this interpretation were correct - and most legal scholars think the opposite - this war-authorization rationale does not explain away the pre-9/11 surveillance of American citizens.
If I'm right here, the reason the Bushies are fighting so hard to keep anyone, including the FISA judges, from learning more about the real reason for their massive domestic surveillance is that outsiders might discover that it has less to do with foreign terrorists and more to do with collecting info on their political enemies and thus creating conditions for more firm control of the American populace in general.
2. Why the "new" Bin Laden audiotape now, warning of a coming attack on the U.S.?
The CIA, rather than independent experts (as was the case in years past), announced that this audiotape was indeed made by bin Laden. Most of the CIA's "recalcitrant" analysts and agents were purged last year by Bush's hand-picked new director, Porter Goss, another malleable Bush loyalist. Should one automatically trust the CIA's claim that this is an authentic bin Laden tape?
The timing of its release is unusually convenient for the Administration, when Bush's favorable numbers are plummeting and so many scandals are exploding into public consciousness that impeachment possibilities are being mentioned - even by Republicans! Let us not forget that just before the 2004 election, another such taped message alleged to be from bin Laden appeared, and was believed to have helped Bush in the balloting.
If the Bush Administration takes seriously this Osama bin Laden threat to attack America again, why has the color-coded threat-level not been raised? Remember Tom Ridge admitted, after he left the directorship of the Homeland Security Department, that his White House superiors sent him out to issue "terror-threat" warnings, with little or no evidence to back them up; the clear implication is that political reasons were at play whenever Bush's numbers started to slip or a new scandal erupted.
But even if the new "bin Laden tape" is genuine, it would merely demonstrate that both religious/political extremists require each other, for their own ends. In this theory, Bush needs bin Laden as the terrorist boogeyman, to increase the fear quotient in the American citizenry and thus permit his Administration to bend and twist the Constitution to aid its own political agenda. And bin Laden needs Bush as the Western imperialist boogeyman, for recruitment purposes and for solidifying the growing anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world and his leading role in that revolt.
3. Why the virtual absence of mainstream-media coverage of Al Gore's amazingly tough speech last week?
Whether or not one finds merit in Gore's toughest charges in his incendiary speech, the former Vice President of the United States (who, don't forget, received more votes nationwide than Bush in the 2000 election) practically called the sitting President a lying crook whose policies approach police-state status. He urged a Special Counsel to investigate this Administration's alleged high crimes and misdemeanors, especially those having to do with the destruction of the checks-and-balances system in our governmental system, as evidenced by Bush's illegal behavior in the NSA spying scandal.
By any definition, a former Vice President saying that a sitting President is violating the Constitution is news. But one would be hard-pressed to find any significant coverage, or even a mention, of it in the mainstream media. It was as if it never happened.
In the so-called "liberal" media, PBS's The News Hour had no mention Monday evening, even though the speech had been delivered around noontime, and then no coverage Tuesday as well. The New York Times, the "newspaper of record," buried a mention of Gore's speech in the final three paragraphs of a long story about something else. ABC News had a quick mention toward the end of its Monday broadcast, but no excerpts from the speech. Nothing on CBS or NBC newscasts. (The entire speech was covered verbatim on CSPAN, but not a lot of Americans watch that channel.)
One can only speculate why the mainstream media would freeze out news of such major import. It's easy enough to understand why the right-wing cable networks and commentators would try to ignore or play down Gore's serious charges against Bush, but the more serious journalists at CBS? NBC? ABC? True, these are giant conglomerate-owned corporations, but they've covered big anti-Bush stories before. (PBS was somewhat declawed by its right-wing then-overseer, Ken Tomlinson, but usually the News Hour With Jim Lehrer is more even-handed.)
No, it's clear that Gore's frontal attack on Bush Administration mendacity and police-state tactics hit a raw nerve and network execs decided, either after having been warned by Bush officials or by self-censoring their own newscasts, that discretion was the better part of valor.
The result, of course, reminds one of the old koan: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? Millions of American citizens were deprived of hearing that loud sound, and thus having more information available to make intelligent choices in a democracy. Precisely what the Rove/Bush/Cheney forces were hoping for.
4. Why did the Bush Administration demand that Google, Yahoo, AOL and other search-engines provide them with a week's worth of data about search requests by their users?
The Bush Administration says they're not after personal information here, only generic patterns that will help them convince the courts to keep certain anti-pornography laws in place. It's hard to imagine that any court would authorize such wide-sweeping fishing expeditions on an unrelated matter with no reasonable criminal reason for the search - but, with Bush-appointed judges in place throughout the appellate court system, who knows? (Note: Google says it will go to court to resist the government's request for these archived, private records.)
The additional dangers of permitting such immense data searches are three-fold.
First, the government's massive computer system may be capable of back-tracking the data to email addresses of those seeking illegal porn on the 'net, with harassment and arrests to follow.
The Busheviks assert that they have no such intent. But who supervises what the government will do with this raw information? In short, who polices the police? Would you trust the Bush Administration to do the right thing? They've shown no evidence of that before, and have displayed a willingness to hide the truth, distort and lie, to keep the public from ever learning their dirty little secrets. In general, it's not wise to trust any government with too much information about what you're up to, but especially this government.
Second, on the surface, their demanding to see all those millions of searches involves a subject designed to elicit support from the American people - stopping kiddie-porn. But feed that search-engine data into NSA's massive computers and, voila, out comes whatever other info you want to look for. In short, it's data-mining from another angle - not through phone calls and emails but through internet search engines' databases. Once the precedent is established with pornography, other "topics of interest" might not be far behind.
Third, one aim of the Bush Administration is to make citizens suspicious of information sources other than the government and its far-right media cohorts. The Busheviks already have made many people doubt the so-called "liberal" mainstream media; now the target is the Internet, a free-flowing, difficult-to-control information-delivery system. How to remove some of the respectability of that source of non-official (and often anti-Bush) information? One way would be to let folks know that everything they do on the Internet - even logging onto a search-engine and surfing the web for information - may well be observed by the thought-police. More citizens might then choose to retire into their individual data shells, and get their informational fixes through more "official" channels.
THE ARROGANCE OF UNCHECKED POWER
So, we've done the news-analysis dance. Can you spot the unstated throughline in all the items discussed above? Yes, of course, it's the reckless dangers associated with the arrogance and abuse of power, be it corporate or governmental. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
We are living through one of America's darkest periods in its history, when mendacity, the lust for power, and greed have corrupted even the best of our institutions. There must be some way out of here, and right now the exits can be found in stopping the worst actors from doing more damage (see: Alito, Sam), starting impeachment hearings to learn the whole rotten truth, and re-establishing electoral integrity by eschewing easily-manipulated computer-voting systems and returning to paper ballots hand-counted. A fair and honest election system certainly would help bring more light into this dark time.
So, friends, there are ways out of here, but it will take lots of hard work, money, energy and extreme courage. Welcome to the fray. Let the rumpus begin.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers. To comment, write: email@example.com.