Bad, Bad, Bad

President Bush yesterday owned up to having authorized the N.S.A. to monitor the private communications of US citizens without the need to obtain a court order. I realize we are at war, but this is wrong, and I am angry about it. I am annoyed not only because it is exactly the sort of thing that goes on in the Orwellian police states we are supposed to be setting ourselves in opposition to, but also because I have at considerable social cost defended the Bush administration’s foreign policy for years now, while he can’t even manage to keep up his end of the bargain by not appearing at every opportunity to be exactly the conniving and hubristic autocrat his more hysterical opponents have always made him out to be.

Obviously his political foes will seize hungrily upon this. I think it is going to be a very serious problem for him, and rightly so.

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  1. So do you think Roosevelt should have gotten warrants before he ordered the interception of communications between the US and Japan or Germany? Do you think that Kennedy should have required warrants to intercept communications between the US and Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or do you think this war is special and we should fight it more politely and delicately than we did past wars?

    Frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about. We trust the president with the power to bomb factories, invade foreign countries, spy, and even nuke foreign cities, but the power to eavesdrop on international communications is just too risky?

    Don’t you think you might be confusing law enforcement with war? Or do you not think that we are at war?

    Posted December 18, 2005 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for dropping by.

    I am well aware of the many exigencies of war, and in particular have studied quite closely the history of World War II. I am a great admirer of Roosevelt, and particularly of Churchill, and have not forgotten Churchill’s adage that “in war the truth is so precious that she must at all times be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

    But even these great men made mistakes, as will all men. The internment of the Japanese, for example, is an instance of exactly the sort of excessive abrogation of the rights of citizens that I think we ought to be vigilant against, although I realize that even that is still being debated.

    We do not “trust” the President to invade foreign countries, we grant him the power to do so. It is, rather, Congress that has the power to declare war. And if it is in the national interest covertly to wiretap our own citizens, it is at the very least not unreasonable to expect that this will not be done, in violation of the essential spirit of basic American principles of liberty and separation of powers, by the executive alone. Throughout the centuries tyrants have over and over again consolidated their grip on power by citing an external threat as justification for the usurpation of the rights of the citizenry. We might think “it can’t happen here”, but history teaches us that it can happen anywhere.

    I am not confusing law enforcement with war, nor, if you have read the rest of my posts, would you imagine that I deny that we are at war. I would like to mention that I live in New York City, that my office in Lower Manhattan is just a few hundred yards from the site of the World Trade Center, that my daughter was in school two blocks from the towers as they collapsed on 9/11, and that I knew people who died there. I point this out not as some sort of ghoulish boast, but only in order to assure you that I do not underestimate the threat. I was a lonely voice in favor of the liberation of Iraq from the very beginning, beset from all sides in my left-leaning community.

    But I think that some careful consideration is necessary of exactly what items on the list of America’s virtues we are willing to sacrifice in order to prosecute this war. The cost must be proportional to the danger. And quite frankly I do not see George Bush as another Churchill, and am not entirely comfortable that I can trust him or his inner circle not to cross the line, so easily crossed when no one is looking, between defense and paranoia.

    Do you think, then, that absolute power, above all restrictions of law, ought to be granted to the president during wartime? And if not, then where do we draw the new line, and who should draw it? It is a serious question. I am not an absolutist on these matters, and understand that reasonable people may differ on the correct tradeoff between rights and security. But I also remember that fire at the Reichstag.

    Posted December 19, 2005 at 12:28 am | Permalink
  3. My point was that we have, for good or ill, entrusted a great deal of power to the president to defend the country and that I think the power to intercept international calls is much less dangerous or prone to misuse than the power to bomb cities, and the like, so I think your concern is a bit overwrought.

    If I’m willing to empower Bush to bomb cities, I’m willing to empower him to intercept international calls. Neither power is absolute, of course, and Bush must be held accountable if he misuses that power, but as long as there are terrorist conspirators within our borders, I’m willing to give the president and his agents some leeway in spying on these guys.

    If he goes too far, they always have civil remedies. And keep in mind that the courts can always exclude any evidence gathered in this way if there is a criminal trial. And his only justification is military danger to the nation, not mere criminal danger. This is a long way from granting the president unfettered powers to gather and use information against American citizens.

    Posted December 19, 2005 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    The problem, of course, is that it is possible to misuse that power without it ever being known. Also, when the only justification is military danger to the nation, then the incentive is simply to enter a state of permanent war, which the “war on terror” could easily become. You may recall that in the novel 1984 the three superpowers were in a perpetual state of war.

    Furthermore, as for “military danger”, we are actually in a rather peculiar position at the moment. Are we at war? I’d say yes – we’ve certainly been attacked – but there has been no formal declaration of war by Congress, nor, for that matter, is there really any particular enemy state to declare war against if we decided to. These are new circumstances, and while I agree that we must regard the external threat very, very seriously, and grant the president what is needed to prevail, we also need to be watchful, because there is great opportunity for corruption here.

    Posted December 20, 2005 at 12:28 am | Permalink