Tuesday, January 17, 2006

“The Very Definition of Tyranny”

[[S P E E C H E S]] * I was occupied yesterday with responsibilities other than blogging. So I missed giving Al Gore an immediate high-five for his speech at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., during which the former vice president condemned George W. Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program as “a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power” and “a threat to the very structure of our government,” and called for “the appointment of a special counsel to pursue the criminal issues” raised by that program. Not surprisingly, this blistering address was quickly applauded by Bush critics (see here and here) and no less promptly denounced by White House spinmeisters, who are trying to convince what they see as gullible Americans that Dubya can’t be held liable for violating federal criminal law, because the Clinton administration did the same thing (which it did not).

The entire speech is worth reading, especially since it suggests that Gore--who, you’ll recall, beat Bush in the popular vote for president in 2000--would have been an immensely different, more thoughtful chief executive than his dud of a former opponent has proved to be. But just the opening makes one want to stand up and cheer:
On this particular Martin Luther King Day, it is especially important to recall that for the last several years of his life, Dr. King was illegally wiretapped--one of hundreds of thousands of Americans whose private communications were intercepted by the U.S. government during this period.

The FBI privately called King the “most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country” and vowed to “take him off his pedestal.” The government even attempted to destroy his marriage and blackmail him into committing suicide.

This campaign continued until Dr. King’s murder. The discovery that the FBI conducted a long-running and extensive campaign of secret electronic surveillance designed to infiltrate the inner workings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to learn the most intimate details of Dr. King’s life, helped to convince Congress to enact restrictions on wiretapping.

The result was the
Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), which was enacted expressly to ensure that foreign intelligence surveillance would be presented to an impartial judge to verify that there is a sufficient cause for the surveillance. I voted for that law during my first term in Congress and for almost thirty years the system has proven a workable and valued means of according a level of protection for private citizens, while permitting foreign surveillance to continue.

Yet, just one month ago, Americans awoke to the shocking news that in spite of this long settled law, the Executive Branch has been secretly spying on large numbers of Americans for the last four years and eavesdropping on “large volumes of telephone calls, e-mail messages, and other Internet traffic inside the United States.”
The New York Times reported that the President decided to launch this massive eavesdropping program “without search warrants or any new laws that would permit such domestic intelligence collection.”

During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the President went out of his way to
reassure the American people on more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is required for any government spying on American citizens and that, of course, these constitutional safeguards were still in place.

But surprisingly, the President’s soothing statements turned out to be false. Moreover, as soon as this massive domestic spying program was
uncovered by the press, the President not only confirmed that the story was true, but also declared that he has no intention of bringing these wholesale invasions of privacy to an end.

At present, we still have much to learn about the [National Security Agency]’s domestic surveillance. What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the President of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently.

A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government. Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they had established a government of laws and not men. Indeed, they recognized that the structure of government they had enshrined in our Constitution--our system of checks and balances--was designed with a central purpose of ensuring that it would govern through the rule of law. As John Adams said: “The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution--an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Gore went on to reassure his American listeners that “The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is all too real.” But, he continued:
Where we disagree is that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government to protect Americans from terrorism. In fact, doing so makes us weaker and more vulnerable.

Once violated, the rule of law is in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater
the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.

The President’s men have minced words about America’s laws. The Attorney General openly conceded that the “kind of surveillance” we now know they have been conducting requires a court order unless authorized by statute. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act self-evidently does not authorize what the NSA has been doing, and no one inside or outside the Administration claims that it does. Incredibly, the Administration claims instead that the surveillance was
implicitly authorized when Congress voted to use force against those who attacked us on September 11th.

This argument just does not hold any water. Without getting into the legal intricacies, it faces a number of embarrassing facts. First, another admission by the Attorney General: He concedes that the Administration knew that the NSA project was prohibited by existing law and that they consulted with some members of Congress about changing the statute. Gonzalez says that they were told this probably would not be possible. So how can they now argue that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force somehow implicitly authorized it all along? Second, when the Authorization was being debated, the Administration did in fact seek to have language inserted in it that would have authorized them to use military force domestically--and the Congress did not agree. ...

When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him all the power he wanted when they passed the AUMF, he secretly assumed that power anyway, as if congressional authorization was a useless bother. But as
Justice [Felix] Frankfurter once wrote: "To find authority so explicitly withheld is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between President and Congress.”
In addressing the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the administration’s program of “extraordinary rendition,” whereby terrorism suspects can, in the name of the United States, be locked up and interrogated in other nations that are less squeamish about torture, Gore asked:
Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is “yes” then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can’t he do?

The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing the Executive Branch’s claims of these previously unrecognized powers: “If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.”

The fact that our normal safeguards have thus far failed to contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power is deeply troubling. This failure is due in part to the fact that the Executive Branch has followed a determined strategy of obfuscating, delaying, withholding information, appearing to yield but then refusing to do so and dissembling in order to frustrate the efforts of the legislative and judicial branches to restore our constitutional balance.
The former veep derided the Bush administration’s campaign to prevent the Judicial Branch of government from limiting its expansion of power, pointing out that the Republican White House has been “keeping controversies out of [the judiciary’s] hands--notably those challenging its ability to detain individuals without legal process--by appointing judges who will be deferential to its exercise of power and by its support of assaults on the independence of the third branch.” But he voiced particular disappointment in Congress for failing to check the excesses and arrogance of the Executive Branch, both as a matter of partisan collusion (“the willingness of Congress to challenge the Administration is further limited when the same party controls both Congress and the Executive Branch”) and as the consequence of the Bush White House’s determination to prevent scrutiny of its activities (“The Administration vigorously asserts its power to maintain the secrecy of its operations. After all, the other branches can’t check an abuse of power if they don't know it is happening”). “One of the other ways the administration has tried to control the flow of information,” Gore said,
is by consistently resorting to the language and politics of fear in order to short-circuit the debate and drive its agenda forward without regard to the evidence or the public interest. ... Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. ...

The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. ...

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.

We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens’ right not only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the part of the Executive Branch and the President’s apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law.

I endorse the words of [former Congressman] Bob Barr, when he said, “The President has dared the American people to do something about it. For the sake of the Constitution, I hope they will.”
Responding to Gore’s underreported call to arms, radio talk show host Cenk Uygur was ready to nominate him as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. “We need a leader,” Uygur wrote in The Huffington Post. “Someone who will help us find ‘a new way beyond the darkness’ and bring us home to an America we recognize.” Unquestionably, Gore’s address was a pick-me-up for U.S. residents discouraged by the ever-increasing number of White House scandals, last week’s unspectacular Senate confirmation hearings for conservative Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., the worsening situation in Iraq, GOP leadership rivalries in the U.S. House that seem destined to replace one ethically challenged majority honcho with another, and the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling outrage. But Gore is already on record declaring his disinterest in making another run for president. And even if his thinking were to change (not an uncommon thing among politicians), there’s no guarantee that his campaign trail speeches would offer the same fire as the address he delivered yesterday. Trying to win the hearts and minds of a voting public is a more restricting exercise than voicing opposition, from outside the political arena, to the policies of a president determined to do whatever the hell he wants--no matter his legal restrictions.

Nonetheless, Uygur is right in saying that Democrats are still looking for the right person to restore integrity to the White House, prosperity to all corners of the nation, and protection in the future without resorting to fearmongering. None of the likely contenders has yet stepped up to that plate with the same courage and lack of equivocation that Gore has shown over the last couple of years. As Hullabaloo’s Digby puts it, Gore has transformed himself into “the conscience of the Democratic Party.”

(Video highlights of Al Gore’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech can be found here.)

SPY VS. NO SPY: From today’s New York Times comes news that “Two leading civil rights groups plan to file lawsuits Tuesday against the Bush administration over its domestic spying program to determine whether the operation was used to monitor 10 defense lawyers, journalists, scholars, political activists and other Americans with ties to the Middle East. The two lawsuits, which are being filed separately by the American Civil Liberties Union in Federal District Court in Detroit and the Center for Constitutional Rights in Federal District Court in Manhattan, are the first major court challenges to the eavesdropping program.” Read on.

A CANCEROUS PRESIDENCY: Slate columnist Bruce Reed, a Clinton administration alumnus, has some unique and interesting observations on the former veep’s address at Constitution Hall. “The first thing that struck me about Al Gore’s rousing speech in Washington on Monday,” Reed writes, “was that he never got that kind of applause when I was writing his speeches. ... The second striking thing about the tone of Gore’s speech and its reception was how much George W. Bush has morphed in Democratic minds into Richard Nixon. Gore dropped hints about impeachable offenses and recalled that warrantless wiretapping was part of the second article of impeachment against Nixon. ... If anyone has earned the right to despise both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, it’s Al Gore. The Nixon White House ended his father’s proud career with a smear campaign in 1970. The Bushies made Gore out to be a serial liar in 2000 and in Florida claimed a victory they didn’t deserve with a ruthlessness Nixon would envy.” Read on.

READ MORE:Gore Calls for an Investigation of Warrantless Spy Program,” by Ronald Brownstein (Los Angeles Times); “Gore Assails Bush Domestic Wiretapping As ‘Power Grab,’” by Joe Gandleman (The Moderate Voice); “Gore: Domestic Spying Beyond Bush’s Authority,” by David Jackson (USA Today); “Security Speech Gives Gore Poll Boost” (UPI); “Gore Isn’t Taking the White House Response Lying Down,” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); “Does the President Really Know Best?” by Elizabeth de la Vega (TomDispatch.com); “Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends,” by Lowell Bergman, Eric Lichtblau, Scott Shane and Don Van Natta Jr. (The New York Times); “So, Al, You Gonna Run?” by Larry Beinhart (The Huffington Post); “Gore Is Bigger Than Ever,” by Ben Smith (New York Observer).

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