Monday, August 06, 2007

Dem Agog

As today’s papers trumpet the president’s signing of his asked for and granted blank check to spy without warrant in any way he wants on practically anybody, foreign or domestic, I am still somewhat amazed, aroused, and most certainly horrified by what happened this weekend.

When I went to bed Friday night, I was dreaming of a post about how the administration had saved Democrats from themselves by trashing the deal struck with Congress by the president’s own Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell. I was even going to make fun of the president by pointing out that he clearly has no idea who his Director of National Intelligence is—I heard Bush on the radio call him “DNI guy,” and then read this quote:

When Congress sends me their version, when Congress listens to all the data and facts and they send me a version of how to close those gaps, I'll ask one question, and I'm going to ask the DNI: Does this legislation give you what you need to prevent an attack on the country? Is this what you need to do your job, Mr. DNI? That's the question I'm going to ask. And if the answer is yes, I'll sign the bill. And if the answer is no, I'm going to veto the bill.

Mr. DNI? Isn’t that a DEVO song?

Anyway, “Mr. DNI” did strike a bargain that he said allowed him to do his “job,” and Bush threatened to veto it anyway, because he thought it would be much more fun (fun = politically advantageous) to spend the August recess demagoging about how Democrats are all soft on terrorism, blah, blah, blah. . . .

Or so I thought that was why. . . . Now, I know. . . the rest of the story.

I don’t know if this was a have our cake and eat it too strategy, or just that President Cheney took a look at the McConnell deal and said “I want more,” or House Minority Leader John Boener’s loose lips leak on Fox News made it imperative that the White House seek broader political and legal cover for the extra-constitutional surveillance they have been doing since the earliest days of this administration, but it seems that, whatever the motivation, Bush/Cheney thought they could win a staring match with Congressional Democrats.

And, indeed, come late Saturday night, the Dems blinked.

I don’t know if I can say it any better than my very own Representative, Jerrold Nadler, did during the Saturday floor debate. . .
This bill is what Karl Rove and his political operatives in the White House have decided they need to win elections. That’s not national security. That’s political warfare.

I do not believe we will soon be able to undo this damage. Rights given away are not easily regained. This bill is not needed to protect America from terrorists. The only purpose of this bill is to protect this administration from its own political problems and cynicism, and its own illegal actions it has taken outside the law without any authorization.

. . . or put it any more starkly than today’s New York Times article on the bill signing. . .

Congressional aides and others familiar with the details of the law said that its impact went far beyond the small fixes that administration officials had said were needed to gather information about foreign terrorists. They said seemingly subtle changes in legislative language would sharply alter the legal limits on the government’s ability to monitor millions of phone calls and e-mail messages going in and out of the United States.

They also said that the new law for the first time provided a legal framework for much of the surveillance without warrants that was being conducted in secret by the National Security Agency and outside the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that is supposed to regulate the way the government can listen to the private communications of American citizens.

“This more or less legalizes the N.S.A. program,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, who has studied the new legislation.

. . . but I can say that I am shocked by, angry at, and ashamed of the Democrats that allowed this to happen. Simply put, their performance this weekend (many fine speeches like Nadler’s not withstanding) was disgusting.

As the Washington Post puts it in an editorial appropriately titled “Warrantless Surrender,”

THE DEMOCRATIC-led Congress, more concerned with protecting its political backside than with safeguarding the privacy of American citizens, left town early yesterday after caving in to administration demands that it allow warrantless surveillance of the phone calls and e-mails of American citizens, with scant judicial supervision and no reporting to Congress about how many communications are being intercepted. To call this legislation ill-considered is to give it too much credit: It was scarcely considered at all. Instead, it was strong-armed through both chambers by an administration that seized the opportunity to write its warrantless wiretapping program into law -- or, more precisely, to write it out from under any real legal restrictions.

. . . .

This is as reckless as it was unnecessary. Democrats had presented a compromise plan that would have permitted surveillance to proceed, but with court review and an audit by the Justice Department's inspector general, to be provided to Congress, about how many Americans had been surveilled. Democrats could have stuck to their guns and insisted on their version. Instead, nervous about being blamed for any terrorist attack and eager to get out of town, they accepted the unacceptable. Most Democrats opposed the measure, but enough (16 in the Senate, 41 in the House) went with Republicans to allow it to pass, and the leadership enabled that result.

(That’s a Washington Post editorial, mind you—as some may have noticed, they have hardly been harsh critics of the GWOT™ over the last six years.)

Indeed, as the Post observes, even though many Democrats voted against the legislation, the Democratic leadership could have stopped this shameful bill cold. Why Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi chose not to defies logic.

Cowardice is an easy explanation, but how afraid do you really have to be of a president whose approval rating is now consistently below 29%, and trending down with each passing day? Nobody likes this guy anymore, and, more importantly, nobody trusts Bush anymore to keep them safe. What is there to fear here, except the proverbial “fear itself?”

And even if Bush was somehow more popular and less of a lame duck, there are matters of principle and pragmatism that argue strenuously against this weekend’s kowtow.

Some things are just not negotiable—even for political expedience. The Constitution is one of those things. The six-month sunset provision in this bill does not make it OK—I don’t know where in the Bill of Rights it says that the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments get to occasionally take time-off for the purposes of partisan politicking.

Further, does the Democratic leadership think that once given, this White House is going give back any of these powers? What will inoculate Democrats from the same demagoguery half a year from now? Why do they think that Bush Administration lawyers will even consider the sunset provision to be binding? Have we learned nothing from our experiences with the AUMF?

And, do Democrats not yet realize that the purpose of the administration’s far-reaching spy programs has nothing—nothing—to do with terrorism, and everything to do with suppressing dissent and destroying political opposition? Evidence has recently emerged that many of the programs we now call the TSP were started prior to 9/11/01 (yes, spying may have started before we even knew of such a thing as the “war on terror”), and the language of this weekend’s legislation very specifically avoids limiting surveillance to suspected terrorists.

And, I will add one other point. Though this feels trivial when compared with the weighty issues above, this legislation is actually bad, I think, for the American economy. With the increased powers given the administration, and the increased awareness of American spying, I can easily see other global powers looking to fully isolate their communications systems from those run through and/or by the US. American Telecom firms will not only lose the fees charged international communications passing over their networks, they will lose the technological edge as a rapidly expanding global communications sector develops its own networks, launches its own satellites, and expressly refuses to share their intellectual property with the compromised US part of the industry.

So, with all that in mind, what were the Democrats thinking? Were they thinking we wouldn’t notice? Were they thinking they would call Bush’s bluff? Were they thinking “at least this gets one of the main reasons for impeachment off the table?” Were they thinking it was 2002?

Were they thinking at all?

I ask because, at this point, in 2007, it has been pointed out by pundits, polls, and progressives alike: How do Democrats expect to look tough on security issues if they can’t resist the churlish railings of an unpopular president?

Especially when the American people, and the Constitution, have their back.

Well, if Democrats continue in this fashion, then voters won’t have their backs for long. If they can’t stand up to the president, then what do they stand for? And if Americans don’t know what these Democrats stand for, then the only thing any of us are going to get excited about is seeing them replaced.

(cross-posted to Daily Kos)

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