Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Playing At "I've Got a Secret..."

... may be great fun for Bush and the legislators, but it's going to be hell for the rest of us, and perhaps sooner than we think.

One of the great fears of civil libertarians is that the gargantuan intelligence apparatus used by the U.S. to monitor the rest of the world might be turned on its own population. What only a small percentage of the population understands is that such is not just a possibility, but is happening now.

Spying on U.S. citizens without warrant is couched in Cold War terms of necessity. Doing so reinforces a belief in the public mind that the threats we face are in our very midst. This has been tried before--during the McCarthy years--when Tailgunner Joe sought to convince the public that its government was overrun by spies and fellow travelers, that communists were everywhere. Today, there has been a concerted attempt by the Bush administration to accentuate so-called terrorist cells within the U.S., often pushing prosecutions on the flimsiest of evidence--including that of a clearly mentally-ill man of Middle Eastern descent who thought he could destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with hand tools and an oxy-acetylene set.

This past weekend, the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, made the extraordinary statement that journalists could be prosecuted for revealing national security information:

There are some statutes on the books which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility. That's a policy judgement by the Congress in passing that kind of legislation. We have an obligation to enforce those laws. We have an obligation to ensure that our national security is protected.

Now, what essential has been left out of Gonzales' estimation of what is possible? The First Amendment of the Constitution. Gonzales' first obligation is to uphold the Constitution. We can't know for certain what was in Gonzales' mind when he says "some statutes," but if he is referring to the Espionage Act of 1917, he is certainly failing to take into account the legislative history of that law. Wilson's administration wanted a provision inserted into that law which would make journalists liable, but Congress refused, in large part because it feared the law would be unconstitutional with such a provision included. Journalists were not to be made "fair game."

The implicit irony in such is that the press, with only a few exceptions, has been inordinately supine after September 11, 2001. The national press--and particularly the networks and cable television--have reported on Bush's staged photo-ops as if they were genuine news, rarely even mentioning that the participants were hand-picked for their loyalty to the man, or that questioners were often coached beforehand. The press, to a considerable extent, willingly became the Pravda of our time. Even the venerable New York Times cooperated with the Bush administration's propaganda campaign to drum up public support for the invasion of Iraq through Judith Miller's uncritical and infamously credulous front-page stories about weapons of mass destruction, stories which were fed to her by administration stooges such as Ahmed Chalabi and the now-notorious "Curveball."

But, what leaks of national security information does this administration fear? Only those which show its dark and illegal side--its archipelago of secret prisons, its spying on Americans without warrant, its determination to kidnap and torture suspects with impunity, its ultimate and hidden reasons for waging an aggressive preventive war, and its apparent determination to start yet another. None of these stories have revealed either names of agents (something the administration itself has done for purely political purposes) or technical details which might threaten the lives of agents in the field, which are perhaps the only pieces of information which should not be made public in any story of government wrongdoing.

At the heart of this phenomenon, however, is a strange mass psychology. The Bush administration has done everything possible to heighten the fear of the public in order to emotionally legitimize its excesses, and to use, cynically, the general faith and trust of the ordinary person in his government. Everything is being done with the public's well-being in mind, goes the general theme of Bush administration statements. The Bush administration is keeping the country safe, and it is only through such extra-legal means that the Bushies have thwarted other acts of terrorism akin to those of 9/11.

There's just one major problem: there's no evidence of such, and even if there were, would it be worth the steady compromise and eventual destruction of the Constitution? This administration, obsessed with secrecy, executive autonomy and political advantage, has assaulted virtually every clause of the First Amendment, and now, through its Attorney General, proposes to attack what little remains of an independent press--the only means by which the public has any knowledge of what the government is doing in its name.

At the same time, the national security apparatus is being used to prevent the disclosure of administration illegality in the courts, as well. The so-called "state secrets privilege" has been invoked much more frequently than in past years, and often in cases which would expose administration wrongdoing. Although legal mechanisms exist for a judge to challenge that privilege, virtually none do.

We were set on this path by two pieces of legislation--the National Reorganization Act of 1946, and the National Security Act of 1947. These acts gave the Executive branch extraordinary powers never conceived of by the framers of the Constitution, powers which have been consistently abused by the government to avoid detection of its illegal behavior. These laws effectively began the Cold War--and the transformation of the country from a democratic republic to a national security state--and successive legislation has further eroded the public's right to know.

In a way, the Bush administration is a symptom of the national security state, rather than its cause. Bush and Co.
have simply used the system provided them in ever more creative ways than their predecessors. The immense power of the official secret bureaucracy is now used to quash lawsuits which would reveal government wrongdoing, to intimidate journalists desiring to expose wrongdoing, to violate fundamental tenets of the Bill of Rights, to protect war profiteers friendly to the administration from public scrutiny, and to actively prevent the public from questioning the legitimacy of the government's actions through propaganda campaigns.

There is a delusion on the part of the public today which is partly responsible for the government's actions. Because of a fear largely enhanced by the government itself, the public believes it is under constant assault and wishes protection from the very fear generated by the government. At the same time, because the public can travel (more or less) freely within our borders and sees no overt signs of martial law, it believes that it is both safe and free. And yet, is anyone free that does not have the absolute rights guaranteed by the Constitution? Almost by definition, no.

But, the public's general attitude seems to be that if it's not out in the open to be seen, it doesn't exist (call it the Ostrich Principle). For that reason, there are questions which should be asked, frequently and loudly:

  • First, does the national security state actually protect us from harm? (The fact that 9/11 occurred suggests that it does not.) If it does, is the harm prevented greater or lesser than the harm created by the loss of our civil rights?
  • What becomes of our society as the tools and tradecraft of spying on the rest of the world are gradually turned inward, on us? (This has happened in the past and is happening again, now.)
  • What is the end result of a courts system which either willingly or indifferently does not restrain the Executive branch's illegality?
  • What is the end result of the administration's intention to suppress public knowledge through the intimidation of the press?
  • What is the end result of this administration's determination to ignore law through the extra-legal process of signing statements and the perversion of the Executive Order?
  • What is the end result of a partisan Congress working in concert with an administration determined to act illegally and unconstitutionally?
  • What becomes of the United States, internationally and domestically, if this administration increasingly militarizes intelligence operations, as it is now doing?
  • What happens to the public's ability to discern the truth when the information it receives is increasingly polluted by government propaganda?
  • What happens to the country if we continue to spend far beyond our budget for military and intelligence functions which are increasingly used domestically? How are we affected, as a society, by the increasing privatization of these functions?

Because all these things are in process now, it's legitimate to ask what becomes of the country if they all proceed to their logical ends. The answer, of course, is simple. We will have, at best, an authoritarian government using bureaucratic power to enforce repression.

At worst, we may become an ideological dictatorship hidden by a thin veneer of democratic institutions, most of which may serve only symbolically.

Therefore, the last question to ask is very simple. Who benefits by this ever-accelerating government secrecy? If the Constitution vested the people with power over the government, does greater and greater government secrecy improve the people's control over that government, or does it improve the government's control over them?


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