Monday, December 19, 2005

The White House Goes Red

Whenever one company takes over another, it absorbs those products or techniques that are profitable and discards those that are not. The United States, which governs more and more by the corporate model than the civic version, is no different. When it triumphed over Communism, it might as well have been a corporate takeover. Overnight, the world went from being dominated by two brands to one. Markets expanded for American and western companies. McDonald’s came to Moscow, German supermarkets opened in Kyiv. The politics in Washington, now unchallenged on the world stage, also began to change, pushing out to fill in its new, roomier boundaries. My short story "The Secret Meeting of the Secret Police," which came out in Night Train magazine a couple years ago, talked about where this might lead, saying how easy it'd be for the KGB -- or any other government agency -- to spy on you in the age of the Internet and the mobile phone. Now we have the payoff.

President Bush has authorized the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without the oversight of even one of the Patriot’s Act hastily-assembled secret courts. I can only imagine what the talking heads are making of this on cable TV back in the states, but if it surprised anyone, I can’t see how it did. Anyone who bothered to read the Patriot Act, either before it was signed or in the months afterward, knew that such a thing was bound to happen. If you’re suspected of being a terrorist (and there’s no evidence needed to justify that suspicion, just the suspicion itself) the government can send the police or its own agents into your house or apartment to perform a “sneak-and-peek” inspection, all without your ever knowing it. This isn’t even limited to terrorism; the powers are granted for the investigation of any criminal offense. So while Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia insists that the US Constitution should be viewed as it was intended when it was written, I find it hard to believe that he and his fellow conservatives can support laws that pervert America's most sacred legal document. Notification is required in these "sneak-and-peek" intrusions, but it can be delayed indefinitely. That's like saying, "We believe in the Fourth Amendment, but only tomorrow, or next week, or better yet the day before you're dead."

When Ronald Reagan was first promoting his ideas for a laissez-faire Washington, he made a joke about the Democrats’ hands-on, overly-regulated form of governance. With that winning smile of his, he had people imagine the Democrats going door-to-door. “I’m from the Government,” he joked, “I’m here to help.” And yet now I’m sure the same people who laughed at this line continue to believe that the government only serves to protect you, that it should even be able to reach out beyond the borders of the Constitution because it’s just doing what’s good and right and proper.

That's what Condoleezza Rice believes. She defends the President’s right to act without any external oversight, because it's a different world and all. Faster and spookier, full of email and cell-phones and the devices of the Evil-Doer.

Just listen to her.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency must obtain search warrants from a special court before conducting electronic surveillance of people suspected to be terrorists or spies. Ms. Rice said the administration believed that it needed greater agility in investigating terrorism suspects than was possible through that process.

"These are stateless networks of people who communicate, and communicate in much more fluid ways," she said. But several national security law experts and civil liberties advocates note that government officials are able to get an emergency warrant from the secret court within hours, sometimes minutes, if they can show an imminent threat.

– From the New York Times.

Maybe there was more evidence that all of this was coming. In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed the ban that kept the FBI from spying on American organizations. It won’t be abused, he promised. But then J. Edgar Hoover promised the same thing when Martin Luther King and other civil rights workers were brought under small government’s version of Big Brother, COINTELPRO, a secret and blatantly illegal government organization that aimed to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize” groups and individuals the FBI found objectionable.

Which today would be just about anyone, what with your either being for or against the guy in the Oval Office.

But again, it's only natural that it's come to this. After acting unilaterally on the international front, by bypassing the United Nations in Iraq, the President is now acting unilaterally on the domestic front. “Unilateral” is a very clean word, isn’t it? If this unilateralism was happening inside the Soviet Union, or in present-day Belarus, we might be using a word more easily associated with one of those leaders who used to stand atop Lenin’s tomb, his breast heavy with medals and red stars. Dictator. That's the word we might inch toward. But if I suggested there were shades of that word moving into DC, it'd just be more evidence of the contemporary caterwauling that is politics.

At some point you have to turn your back on a President. If you don’t like the United Nations, that’s one thing. But Congress is a pretty sacred institution, cherished in my book, as it, along with an independent court, keeps us from the age of kings. If President Bush needs to act more quickly, he should talk to the country, he should talk to Congress -- hell, if he has to he should watch that Saturday morning cartoon about bills on Capitol Hill and do something about it. Because he's not God's Holy Warrior, sent here to protect us with his great wisdom and valor. He's just another guy in a cowboy hat who walks a little funny.

And remember, for every one crime that is reported, another nine go left unsaid. Do you know what's happening in Washington?