Saturday, March 10, 2007

Without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion

I sometimes like to imagine a non-existent moment of testimony from a never-going-to-happen Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. In my reverie, it goes something like this:
Senator: Sir, are you familiar with the phrase "a government of laws, not of men?"

Bush Administration Official: Yes, Senator, I am.

Senator: Can you summarize its meaning for us this morning?

Bush Administration Official: [Covers microphone with hand, whispers with staffer, who begins thumbing through briefing books] Uhm, Senator, I . . .

Senator: Sir, let me see if I can help you out. Doesn't it refer to a form of government under which laws are designed to operate honestly and fairly, regardless of who happens to be in charge of executing and enforcing those laws on any given day?

Bush Administration Official: [Looks sharply at staffer, who stares back, frozen in terror] Senator, to the best of-- [Looks at briefing book for a moment]--Senator, I suppose that is a fair interpretation of the phrase. Yes.

Senator: And do you believe that phrase describes the American system of laws and justice?

Bush Administration Official: [Eyes dart from one Committee member's face to the next, find no safe haven, finally returning to the Senator] Yes, I suppose so.

Senator: I'm glad to hear it. Sir, in your testimony today--and, I might add, in your testimony before this Committee on numerous previous occasions--you have asked us to give you unprecedented power to ignore the will of Congress and of the American people, to escape essential Constitutional limitations of the Executive Branch, and to commit acts which are destructive of the fundamental civil liberties enjoyed by Americans, liberties which define our great nation. And you assure us that we may rest comfortably in the expectation that you will not abuse these extraordinary powers, that you will only use them with extreme constitutional caution and only in the most limited and exigent circumstances--that we may rest assured that in giving you these powers we will not soon regret it, because you have given us your word that you would never abuse these powers for personal or partisan advantage. Is that essentially your testimony? Would you say that correctly summarizes your position here today?

Bush Administration Official: I . . . I . . .

Senator: I have good news for you, sir. Because America is the sort of place you've agreed that it is--because it is fundamentally a nation ruled by laws, not men--you are relieved of the burden of offering us your personal assurances on this matter. We have something far better upon which to rely.

No, the guarantee that you will not abuse these powers is not your solemn word that your principles or character would not allow you to do so; it is the fact that the law will swiftly and publicly visit justice upon you if you should attempt it. With that in mind, federal marshals are now passing among you and your staff, distributing subpoenas. I look forward to the pleasure of discussing this matter with you in considerable detail in the near future.

And so on. It's a lovely idyll, isn't it? But then I always wake up.

A year ago, I was finding ample opportunity to mock then-Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Arlen Specter, who as a Bush loyalist made sure that there was no congressional oversight of the Bush administration's lawlessness, yet always professed shock and dismay at each new round of constitutional fast ones by the executive branch.

A year later, Specter's lost the gavel, but, as Glenn Greenwald points out, he's clearly learned nothing (ad viewing required for link):
Now that even Alberto Gonzales' DOJ has acknowledged that the FBI has been violating the law with regard to its NSL powers, there are some important lessons that one can learn, if one is so inclined, about how our country has operated for the last six years. Let us begin with the fact that the Inspector General's Office which issued this report is merely a mid-level subordinate DOJ office that reports to the Attorney General, and its conclusions (particularly its exculpatory ones) are hardly dispositive. The oversight here is not the Report itself. That is just the start. The oversight is the Congressional investigation which must follow to determine the scope of the wrongdoing and what actually motivated it.

But the good little authoritarians who always reflexively embrace every unchecked pronouncement by the Bush administration as though it is the Gospel Truth -- the attribute which is, at its core, the defining one of a mindless authoritarian -- are (consistent with that mindset) now running around shrilly insisting that the Leader did no real wrong, because the DOJ Report said that nothing was really done with malicious intent here. The DOJ has spoken, and that settles that. With this mentality, these reflexive Bush defenders are exhibiting precisely the profound character flaw that has led to all of these abuses in the first place: namely, blind, gullible, cult-like and distinctly un-American trust in the assurances of the Leader without any demands of scrutiny, accountability, corroboration or oversight. […]

As is so often the case, Arlen Specter enables excellent insight into how this mindset functions. With these revelations of the FBI's lawbreaking yesterday, Specter was strutting around making all sorts of dramatic protest noises, acting as though he is some sort of guardian of checks and balances and civil liberties. In fact, as Judiciary Committee Chairman from 2002 until 2006, Specter eagerly enabled a virtually complete dismantling of the system of checks and balances on presidential power, and did so by blindly and timidly relying upon administration assurances that they were acting properly.

The same Specter who now professes such grave concern over the abuse of the NSLs is the very same one who led the fight on behalf of the administration to re-authorize the Patriot Act by stampeding over concerns about, among other things, the potential for abuse of NSLs. On December 12, 2005, Specter wrote this letter (.pdf) to six Senators (including 3 Republicans) who were resisting renewal of the Patriot Act due to concerns about the potential for abuse by the Bush administration of NSLs.

Specter's letter -- written after publication of Barton Gellman's documented expose of NSL abuses in The Washington Post -- emphatically assured those worried Senators that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, because the administration secretly assured the Intelligence Committee that everything was being handled properly, and that settles that […]

(Read the rest of Greenwald's essay. It's also going onto the Reading list in the sidebar.)

Such was life under the gavel of Specter the partisan hack and Bush button man. And yet, even in Democratic hands, the Judiciary Committee may still prefer to be swindled, and to let Senators like Russ Feingold--who warned a year ago that the fix was in--continue to wander in the desert.

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