Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Times That Roared

It's always worth noting when a major media outlet publishes an honest, strong, clear-sighted piece about the Bush administration and the "war on terror." Today, the New York Times gets those kudos, for an editorial entitled "The Real Agenda":

It is only now, nearly five years after Sept. 11, that the full picture of the Bush administration's response to the terror attacks is becoming clear. Much of it, we can see now, had far less to do with fighting Osama bin Laden than with expanding presidential power.

Over and over again, the same pattern emerges: Given a choice between following the rules or carving out some unprecedented executive power, the White House always shrugged off the legal constraints. Even when the only challenge was to get required approval from an ever-cooperative Congress, the president and his staff preferred to go it alone. ...
The administration's intent to use the war on terror to buttress presidential power was never clearer than in the case of its wiretapping program. The president had legal means of listening in on the phone calls of suspected terrorists and checking their e-mail messages. A special court was established through a 1978 law to give the executive branch warrants for just this purpose, efficiently and in secrecy. And Republicans in Congress were all but begging for a chance to change the process in any way the president requested. Instead, of course, the administration did what it wanted without asking anyone. When the program became public, the administration ignored calls for it to comply with the rules. As usual, the president's most loyal supporters simply urged that Congress pass a law allowing him to go on doing whatever he wanted to do.

Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced on Thursday that he had obtained a concession from Mr. Bush on how to handle this problem. Once again, the early perception that the president was going to bend to the rules turned out to be premature.

The bill the president has agreed to accept would allow him to go on ignoring the eavesdropping law. It does not require the president to obtain warrants for the one domestic spying program we know about -- or for any other program -- from the special intelligence surveillance court. It makes that an option and sets the precedent of giving blanket approval to programs, rather than insisting on the individual warrants required by the Constitution. Once again, the president has refused to acknowledge that there are rules he is required to follow.
The president's constant efforts to assert his power to act without consent or consultation has warped the war on terror. The unity and sense of national purpose that followed 9/11 is gone, replaced by suspicion and divisiveness that never needed to emerge. The president had no need to go it alone -- everyone wanted to go with him. Both parties in Congress were eager to show they were tough on terrorism. But the obsession with presidential prerogatives created fights where no fights needed to occur and made huge messes out of programs that could have functioned more efficiently within the rules.

Jane Mayer provided a close look at this effort to undermine the constitutional separation of powers in a chilling article in the July 3 issue of The New Yorker. She showed how it grew out of Vice President Dick Cheney's long and deeply held conviction that the real lesson of Watergate and the later Iran-contra debacle was that the president needed more power and that Congress and the courts should get out of the way.

To a disturbing degree, the horror of 9/11 became an excuse to take up this cause behind the shield of Americans' deep insecurity. The results have been devastating. Americans' civil liberties have been trampled. The nation's image as a champion of human rights has been gravely harmed. Prisoners have been abused, tortured and even killed at the prisons we know about, while other prisons operate in secret. American agents "disappear" people, some entirely innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of innocent men have been jailed at Guantanamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights. And Congress has shirked its duty to correct this out of fear of being painted as pro-terrorist at election time.

One has to appreciate such powerful truth-telling when it happens, because it is so rare in the mass media.

Some leftie bloggers have a few nits to pick. DK at Talking Points Memo writes:

... I do want to flag one concession the NYT makes, incorrectly in my view, in the midst of its otherwise solid indictment of the Administration (emphasis added):

While no one questions the determination of the White House to fight terrorism, the methods this administration has used to do it have been shaped by another, perverse determination: never to consult, never to ask and always to fight against any constraint on the executive branch.

Well, actually, quite a number of people question the White House's determination to fight terrorism. An Administration determined to fight terrorism after 9/11 would not have invaded Iraq, would have devoted considerable effort and resources to securing the nation's ports, and would have worked to minimize the effects of a terrorist attack by improving disaster preparedness, which Katrina starkly showed was not done. That's just the short list.

I don't want to make too big a deal of this because, taking the editorial as a whole, I'm not sure the NYT actually believes that Bush's determination is unquestioned. Much of the editorial's argument underlines precisely why the White House's determination to fight terrorism is questionable at best.

On the other hand, to frame the issue without challenging the White House's anti-terror credentials concedes far too much and ignores the many reasons, too numerous to document here but with which everyone is now familiar, to doubt this Administration's credibility.

Barbara O'Brien takes issue with the first paragraph of the editorial: She points out that "Some of us realized what was going on a lot sooner."

And Jack Balkin has a bit of a quibble with the Times's legal reading of the Specter legislation on electronic surveillance.

These really are minor issues, given how strong the editorial is overall. Peking Duck gets the last word:

The most outspoken and angry editorial I've ever seen in the NY Times. Oh, and it's completely true as well.

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