Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why are Democrats Still So Bad at Math?

About two months ago, I questioned Democratic Party strategy in light of repeated revelations of Republican wrongdoing and Bush’s falling poll numbers. Since then, there has been a virtual cavalcade of stories about Republican and administration misdeeds, and poll after poll has signaled broad-based disapproval of the President and his rubberstamp Congress.

Read the papers, turn on the TV, and you’ll see this week is no different. (Read the rest of this post, and you will see, sadly, that Democratic “strategy” is also little changed.)

On a day when it is revealed that AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth have been helping the National Security Agency keep tabs on tens of millions of Americans by collecting data on international and purely domestic phone calls, we are informed that the Justice Department ethics office is dropping its probe into the conduct of DoJ lawyers involved with the approval of the NSA’s warrantless domestic spying program because the investigators were denied security clearances.

First, it was clear from the language used by Abu Gonzales and G-dub back in December, after The New York Times published revelations about the NSA’s illegal domestic spying, that there was more to the spy program than the eavesdropping on international calls that the Pulitzer Prize-winning story revealed. Now we have confirmation:

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

Every call ever made—how is that legal? Well, it is legal because the lawyers somewhere in this government say so. Who? How? Why? We don’t get to know that because, well, lawyers somewhere in the government say so:

The head of the [Justice Department’s] Office of Professional Responsibility, H. Marshall Jarrett, wrote in the letter to Representative Maurice D. Hinchey, Democrat of New York, that "we have been unable to make meaningful progress in our investigation because O.P.R. has been denied security clearances for access to information about the N.S.A. program."

Mr. Jarrett said his office had requested clearances since January, when it began an investigation, and was told on Tuesday that they had been denied. "Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation," the letter said.

Mr. Hinchey said the denial of clearances was "hard to believe" and compounded what he called a violation of the law by the program itself, which eavesdrops without court warrants on people in the United States suspected of ties to Al Qaeda.

Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said that the N.S.A. program was "highly classified and exceptionally sensitive" and that "only those involved in national security with a specific need to know are provided details about this classified program." He said the legality of the eavesdropping program had been reviewed by other Justice Department offices and by the N.S.A. inspector general.

Representative Hinchey is appropriately scandalized. Will others be as upset? (If the level attention this is given in today’s NY Times is any indication, not so much. The quote above is, minus one sentence, the entire article on the subject.)

The pending confirmation hearings for DCI designate Gen. Michael Hayden should give Senate Democrats ample opportunity to reinvigorate the debate over the program Hayden oversaw during his tenure as head of the NSA. But, if we are to believe this Bloomberg report, they’re not going to:

Democrats say they will focus their fire on Michael Hayden's military background and suitability to head the Central Intelligence Agency when Senate confirmation hearings begin next week -- and won't emphasize the nominee's role in running a much-criticized eavesdropping program.

Emphasize his military background and suitability? Why? To show he’s a solid citizen with a lifetime of service? To shift the debate from the wildly unpopular President Bush and his administration’s complete disregard for the rule of law? I can’t even think of what poll would tell the Dems to do this. . . . Oh, wait, here it is (from the same Bloomberg piece):

The Democrats' reluctance to engage Hayden on the eavesdropping may be explained by polling data that shows voters are far less critical of the surveillance program than of Bush's oversight of Iraq.

Forty-eight percent said it was acceptable for Bush to authorize the surveillance compared with 47 percent who said it was unacceptable, according to a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll conducted April 8 to 11 among 1,357 adults.

I’m sorry, but that’s half of America that disapproves—half! Talk about illegal surveillance a little more, engender a little more reporting on the matter, tie the domestic spying to a president increasingly seen as corrupt, out of touch, and unconcerned with the limits placed on his power by the US Constitution, and I promise you will see the “unacceptable” number grow well beyond the margin of error. And, not only would Hayden’s confirmation hearings give Democrats a great stage for such talk, it would force Republicans to defend the program and the President. With Bush’s approval rating clocking in at 31%, and “right track/wrong track” pushing past two-thirds “wrong,” I think that’s just good election year politics.

But maybe the Democrats are seeking other counsel:

Bush administration officials and their Republican congressional allies have said they would welcome a fight over the surveillance program, which Hayden initiated during his tenure as director of the National Security Agency.

Oh, that’s it—Senate Dems don’t want to play into Republican hands. . . . Hello? Do we really need to have a refresher course on the story of Br’er Rabbit? If Senate Republicans really welcome a fight over warrantless domestic surveillance, then why has the Intelligence Committee abandoned all visible oversight of this program? If the administration welcomes the spotlight, then why have they just killed their own Justice Department’s investigation?

Rather than allowing themselves to be stared down by the Republicans, why don’t Democrats listen to the American people? Like the 67% who think Congress does not ask enough questions of this administration.

Update: Case in point: both cases; both points.

The splash headline on AOL’s “welcome” page today is “Bush Denies Breaking Law.” For those that need a little hand-holding on this, that’s the President’s name and law-breaking in the same sentence. Further, the denial is messy:

"Our intelligence activities strictly target al-Qaida and their known affiliates," Bush said. "We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans."

That’s completely untrue—on two counts. By definition, if you want to log every phone call made in the US, then intelligence activity is not strictly targeting al Qaeda, and, again, by definition, looking for patterns in records of all calls and e-mails is both mining and trolling. In addition, as georgia10 has noted, Bush’s “explanation” directly contradicts Gen. Hayden’s own stated goals for the program:

I have met personally with prominent corporate executive officers. . . . And last week we cemented a deal with another corporate giant to jointly develop a system to mine data that helps us learn about our targets.

Still, the Democratic leadership is having trouble getting upset about this. Raw Story reports that 72 members of the House have filed amicus briefs in two federal courts challenging the legality of the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping. The briefs emphasize that Congress never authorized such behavior. And yet, neither Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) nor whip Steny Hoyer (MD) has joined the brief. (hat tip: nowheredesign) Is Rep. Pelosi afraid that Tim Russert will once again call standing up for the laws of the land “payback?”

And speaking of laws, let’s not forget that once again, no matter what Bush “denies,” the law has been broken. How do we know? Qwest Communications has refused to participate in this program. As Glenn Greenwald quotes from deep in the USA Today article:

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

Now, if Quest has the guts to stand up for congressionally mandated oversight, why doesn’t Congress? And if AOL can associate the President with breaking the law, why can’t the Democrats?

(cross-posted over at Daily Kos)


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