Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Be afraid - be very afraid

Two things happened last week that should send terrifying shivers down the spines of even the most ardent supports of President George Bush's assault on civil liberties.

They also go to the heart of why this newspaper has been so critical of his administration.

The first was an extraordinary statement by Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He was commenting about the arrests in Miami and Lebanon of men who were talking about committing terrorist attacks in the United States, men who authorities say had no clear plans and no obvious weapons to carry them out even if they had been better organized.

"You may not end up winning in court," the New York Republican said, "but you get a bad guy off the street."

Now think about that for a second.

Didn't we see that in Steven Spielberg's nightmarish vision of the future called "Minority Report," in which people were arrested by "pre-crime police" and jailed merely for thinking about committing a murder? And, of course, an innocent man is caught up in the corrupt system before truth (an actual need for real evidence) and the American Way (those pesky checks and balances) prevail.

Think about it again: "You may not end up winning in court."

Argentine dictator

A statement like that is reminiscent of Argentine dictator Juan Peron's lament in the musical "Evita" about "the inconvenience of having to win a majority."

For the Bush gang, the niceties of international treaties, courts and congressional oversight are just such an inconvenience. That is the fundamental issue with Bush. It isn't because he is too aggressive in the pursuit of would-be terrorists. It is because he wants absolute authority to define, capture, abuse if not torture, convict and imprison anyone - indefinitely.

If you accept that Bush has such powers, you have to accept that he can do unto each one of us what he is doing unto others - with no right of appeal or oversight. You could be one of those hapless alleged terrorists languishing for years in legal limbo, or you could have your phone tapped (surely not for political purposes) or have your finances scrutinized (surely never to be leaked or used against you somehow). We can all trust Karl Rove not to politicize that kind of information, right?

Chilling event

And that brings us to the second chilling event of the week - a Republican leader standing up for Congress' right and duty to oversee intelligence operations. That's right, a REPUBLICAN is upset.

The New York Times revealed that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., sent the president an angry letter about "alleged intelligence community activities" not described to committee members in classified briefings.

"If these allegations are true," he wrote to Bush, "they may represent a breach of responsibility by the administration, a violation of law and ... a direct affront to me and the members of this committee."

Hoekstra said Sunday that he had finally been briefed and the allegations were true. But he still wasn't happy.

"I wanted to reinforce to the president and to the executive branch and the intelligence community how important, and by law the requirement, that they keep the legislative branch informed of what they are doing," he said. "It is not optional for this president or any president or people in the executive community not to keep the intelligence committees fully informed of what they are doing."

And that goes to the heart of the stories on the administration's use of foreign prisons, abusive treatment, unwarranted wire taps on domestic phone calls and, most recently, The New York Time's scoop on the administration's secret program targeting suspected terrorists' banking records.

Treasonous action

Ironically, Rep. King - who doesn't really care about having enough evidence for convictions - called on the Justice Department to prosecute The New York Times for "treasonous" action.

Of course that will never happen. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal all published the story without revealing any operational secrets. What they did reveal was that once again, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are, at best, thumbing their noses at Congress and, at worst, ignoring the law.

That is shown by the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee wasn't briefed about the banking program until after it was known that the Times was going with the story.

Fortunately in the case of Guantanamo Bay detainees, the U.S. Supreme Court got into the act and made clear that Congress did not hand Bush a "blank check" to do as he pleased after 9/11. Even the administration backed down Tuesday by agreeing to give Guantanamo prisoners protection under the Geneva Conventions.

Yes, we are at war with a nefarious and pitiless enemy. And Bush needs to do everything in his power to keep this country safe from terrorists.

But we as Americans - Democrats, Republicans, independents, conservatives and liberals - cannot cede to him the right to decide alone who is a terrorist and how that person will be treated. To do so is to allow us to sink to the level of the worst of history's totalitarian regimes.

The Olympian, July 12th.

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