© 2005 Ross Williams
"Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." - Otto von Bismarck
I've got good news and I've got bad news. And then I've got what should be non-news, but isn't.
The good news is that Geo. W Bush isn't playing politics this time. He’s actually being candid and forthright. It isn’t often that happens; enjoy it while you can.
The bad news is the subject on which he isn't playing politics: domestic espionage under executive authority.
The non-news that isn't is the same as the bad news.
In case you missed it, the New York Times [motto: All the news that's fit to embarrass Bush] printed a story in the past few days saying that Bush authorized wiretaps "of Americans" after 9-11.
Rather than denying it and explaining why black is white, Bush said, "Yeah? and?" In a way, this is a relief. I'm of mixed emotions on the subject. First, I don't like the notion of citizens being wiretapped in this country. But I draw a distinction between J Edgar Hoover wiretapping his political enemies to find out who is likely to publish the pictures of him in a cocktail dress and fishnets stockings, and wiretapping those who have known connections to individuals and organizations who have attacked the United States.
The courts have traditionally drawn similar distinctions as well. This is the reason for the "Executive Privilege" which Bush invoked to do it. Such privilege has been invoked before with very few slapped presidential paws. FDR did all kinds of civil anti-libertarian things during World War Two – including tapping wires – and only a scant handful of them are drawing criticism even today; the only one that most people can even think of is the concentration camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry. Wilson violated the Bill of Rights with the full blessing of virtually every American during The Great War. Lincoln did ditto during the Civil War, and only his suspension of Habeas Corpus got rebuked.
Bush wiretapping? Historically, it's small potatoes. Teeny tiny potatoes. Mashed potatoes.
Personally, I still don't like it. But I just can't get worked up over it.
For Bush's part, he explained:
1] yes I did;
2] I'd do it again;
3] it's my job.
Then he called the New York Times out onto the carpet – where they really belong – for being a naive prissypants in a real world that is a lot more dangerous than its ivory-towered editorialists are willing to concede.
The government’s main job is to protect Americans from those people and nations which want to hurt us. At this particular time, “those people” consist largely of pan-islamist blockheads who have a 1,300-year chip on their shoulder. As tough as it may be for New York’s editorial boards to accept, some people want to kill Americans – even the stalwart editorial defenders of the oppressed oppressors.
You know it’s a tough world when the people you praise still want to kill you. Giuliana Sgrena needs to be an object lesson on the realities of islamist extremism. Molly Ivins, take note.
Also noteworthy, and also long understood, is that in protecting us from foreigners who would do us harm, the government needs to be able to do things that we don’t know about. If we know about it, then our rights are being preserved. But if we know about it, then so do the people who would harm us. If they know about it, then they can harm us more easily, and our preserved rights won’t protect us from harm.
That’s part of the cat-n-mouse game between cops and robbers, and friends and foes. Secret-keeping is essential. For someone like the New York Times, which has a pretty-much stated loathing of the President, to tell our enemies that the President’s government has been listening in on their telephone calls by order of the President they hate, they are, in very succinct effect, telling al Qaida and all it’s splinter groups, feeder groups and independent consultants to change all their plans they’ve cooked up since late 2001. “Pssst! Dummy up, you dummies! Da fuzz is on to yuz!”
Free and independent press … aid and comfort to the enemy … it’s a fine line at times like these, and one that I’d usually conclude on the side of “aid and comfort”.
And yet, I still don’t like the idea of the government having secret wiretaps. I am still ambivalent. On the one hand, I don’t want it happening to me; on the other, there’s no real likelihood it will. …which brings the rationalists of all stripes out from under their slimy rocks and the dark recesses of their cobwebbed corners to pollute the discussion with illogic and irrelevance.
On one side, you’ve got the police-statists declaring “if you aren’t consorting with terrorists you’ve got nothing to hide … you should welcome such secret spying.” These are the people who rationalize the nazi-stands at airports: if you aren’t a hijacker, you shouldn’t mind being searched and stripped and groped by civil servants with 3 hours of training to guide them.
If you aren’t guilty of hoarding or distributing child porn, you also shouldn’t mind the FBI busting down your doors to find out for themselves, either. Should you? There’s a 4th amendment for a reason. I suggest we recall what that reason is, and apply it.
And then you’ve got the ultra-Libertarian weenies making their perpetual claim that it doesn’t matter what the justification is, civil rights are inviolable at all times. …and the Constitution has just been turned, by self-righteous fiat, into a straightjacket.
The Constitution was written to “…provide for the common defense … to ourselves and our posterity”. For those on the local train, this means that the purpose of the Constitution was to ensure that, more than having something worthy of defending, we are able to defend ourselves for many, many, many generations to come. A necessary corollary of our future defense is that when specific details of our defense-worthiness interfere with our self-defense, our self-defense must come first.
You can babble from now until hell freezes over that a United States without civil liberties isn’t a United States you would want to live in, but a United States that chooses to defend civil liberties at the expense of defending itself isn’t going to be a United States at all. Civil liberties can always be restored – and have several times. National identities … not so much. The Roman Empire doesn’t have a seat in the UN General Assembly. Nor does Byzantium, or Babylon, or Persia, or the Iroquois Nation, or the Incan Empire, or Prussia, or the Mayan Kingdom, or, or, or.
The nations which are dust-covered entries in long, boring history books are far more numerous than those which exist on top of them today. If the United States goes away, another country will be built on the same ground, but it won’t be the United States. Congratulations, nose-cutting face-spiters. Civil liberties must have been really important to you.
But that’s only the good news and the bad news. There’s still the non-news. Show me someone who is truly surprised that the US government is doing secret things, and I’ll show you someone who needs to visit reality a bit more often.
Yes, the United States does things that its formal Hoyle rules don’t really allow. And then they don’t tell us about it until wa-a-a-ay afterwards. There’s a 50-year moratorium on the findings of the Warren Commission into the JFK assassination. Why isn’t the New York Times digging around and publishing those findings? Maybe someone from the Bush family was involved – it did take place in Texas, after all. It’s possible, in an X-Files way. We have A Right to Know®.
JFK’s administration planned and started [but failed to carry out] an invasion of Cuba in complete contravention of all international law – there were no cease-fire violations for Jack to fall back on. JFK ordered international law-breaking violations of Cuban territorial sovereignty while collecting photographs of Soviet missiles sites being built so that Adlai Stevenson could take them to the UN and impress the rest of the world with unlawfully-gained intelligence. The impulse to contrast illegal-but-accurate against legal-but-inaccurate UN presentations is overwhelming...
Every President from FDR to Nixon gave J Edgar a wide berth, essentially condoning by silent complicity the domestic political espionage and extortion of the FBI’s head honcho. Nixon then thought it was such a good idea he created his own “enemies list”. He also bombed Cambodia for months before anyone knew about it.
Gosh. The government does secret things that break the rules.
What is your point?
Mostly, they just want to be indignant. The government shouldn’t do certain things. Well, wuptiding; they still do, and likely always will. It is the way of government. Stop being a putz.
I can understand people who like this particular secret policy and find nothing wrong with it – I tend to think they are police-statists, but I can understand them. I can understand people who don’t like this particular secret policy and find nothing right with it – I tend to think they are naïve simpletons, but I can understand them as well.
What I can’t understand are those who are absolutely flummoxed that the government does things that they don’t tell us about. Being ignorant of specifics is no excuse for being an ignoramus.