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Political Animal

Profiles in Cowardice

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/19/2007

Every time I happen to be in a place that plays Lee Greenwood's song "God Bless the USA," it gets me thinking.

You're heard the song before, often at political rallies (usually for Republicans)--it was almost the secondary national anthem for a while after Sept. 11 and during the runup to the Iraq war. You know its refrain: "I'm proud to be an American/ where at least I know I'm free." When I hear it nowadays, I wonder if anyone else finds it strikingly ironic given the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The administration has fought to revoke habeas corpus, and to hold native-born Americans indefinitely and without charges, and has created a network of secret prisons all over the globe at which it argues that U.S. law does not apply. And yet we still sing about "freedom" and "liberty." Our government has admitted to spying on its own citizens electronically and without warrants, and has enlisted private industry to do so. This week our president said he would veto any law passed about telecommunications spying that did not include retroactive immunity for any of the telecom companies that had enlisted in the domestic spying program.

The sad part is that this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue, since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pushed an immunity bill forward favoring the Bush administration, over the objections of senators Chris Dodd and Russell Feingold. Reid even disregarded the "hold" placed on the bill by Dodd, a member of his own party--something I've never seen done before in the Senate.

At issue are two bills--one of which, the one coming from the Intelligence Committee, includes retroactive immunity for the telecoms; the other, from the Judiciary Committee, does not. The bill that came out of the Intelligence Committee was crafted by Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Rockefeller is the senator who, despite the fact that it's his job to conduct oversight over the administration's covert activities, was asleep at the switch when it came to the reports of the destruction of the tapes of the CIA torturing suspects. Now he is doing the bidding of Vice President Dick Cheney by disallowing any American who might be spied on illegally, by the government while overseas, the opportunity to seek redress of the violation of his rights in court.

Short of a better word for it, this is cowardice on the part of Reid, Rockefeller, and any member of the Senate who voted for cloture on Dec. 17, allowing the bill with immunity to go forward. The only possible reason for a Democrat to vote for this bill is that he or she is afraid of how the president and his allies in the conservative media will maul them on national security in the upcoming election year.

Feingold, the Democrat from Wisconsin, explained the stakes involved in trying to kill the immunity provision:

We have a big fight on our hands, and unfortunately, the deck is now stacked against us. Instead of being able to defend improvements that were made in the Judiciary Committee, we are going to have to start all over again to try to salvage the good work that was done to improve the bill. This includes adding tougher court oversight and greater protection for the privacy of innocent Americans, and by stripping out the retroactive immunity provision. A vote on the amendment to strike immunity, which Senator Dodd and I will offer, could come fairly soon. We will be pointing out that under current law, companies already get immunity for cooperating with government requests for information--as long as the requests follow requirements that are clearly laid out in the law. If companies didn't follow this law, and cooperated with illegitimate requests for sensitive information, then we should not hand them a "get out of jail free" card after the fact. Judges should be the ones to make this determination--and to rule on the legality of the warrantless program.

Part of the problem that occurs when the Congress gives away freedoms like this is that it creates a precedent to push even further. Who's to say that down the line, a president--Republican or Democrat--won't seize this as a need to expand the reach of the government even more? As legal scholar Bruce Fein said earlier this year on Andrew Bard Schmookler's See No Evil blog, "Bush's precedents are dangerous, and will lie around like loaded weapons readily unleashed by any incumbent in times of strife or conflict, e.g., a second edition of 9/11 . . . as Justice Brandeis amplified, all government lawlessness is dangerous because it teaches people by its example." The next time there's some sort of disaster--whether on the scale of Timothy McVeigh's attack on the Murrah Federal Building or of, heaven forbid, Sept. 11--what's to say the executive won't be looking at the need to create another civil-liberties invasion of the same sort as the PATRIOT Act?

There are times when being a political junkie can fill you with disgust, and this is one of these times. I've never been one to argue that "all politicians are crooks" or in general disparage those in Washington as spineless, but after this episode, it's hard not to agree with the cynics.

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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