Monday, February 18, 2008
Let's talk about police states. That's always fun. We do not currently have a police state in the United States, in my view (although others may, and do, differ), but we have a tendency. We have an urge. I believe that the urge to adopt a police state can be cured, perhaps through re-education camps and prayer.
The imperial presidency of G.W. Bush has long claimed the authority to do pretty much anything it wants, usually in the name of national security. It has also claimed the authority not to tell anybody what it's doing, also in the name of national security. When you have a government that can do anything and not tell its citizens about it, you have a police state.
Fortunately, what Georgie wants Georgie does not always get. Even his very own hand-picked Supreme Court has disagreed with him about his right to hold people in detention at Guantanamo for just about ever without access to counsel and with no guarantee of a speedy, or indeed a pokey, trial. And some other people conspired to tell the Bushies that outing a CIA agent because her husband wrote something mean in the New York Times was just not kosher, although that word was never used.
That case gave us two great R-rated political names, "Scooter" Libby and Valerie Plame. If those names had been used in a Washington novel, the author would have been mocked. Reality is so cool.
But the heart of the police state push has always been the Protect America Act, which includes the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. FISA is designed to sneak around the federal requirement that the government obtain a court order before it wiretaps someone. This onerous burden of actually proving something to a person not in the White House inner circle was considered an obstacle to the war on terror. In other words, the Constitution was standing in the way of protecting the Constitution.
You may think you have nothing to hide. You may think that the government will bug only the bad people. As residents of many, many police states can tell you, the government's definition of what constitutes a bad person shifts constantly and always expands. You can be wiretapped just because you were in the wrong place in the wrong time. Hell, you could be arrested for it. It's happened within this decade, right here in the USA.
Now, the wiretaps are something of a joke. They produce far more pages of transcript than anyone can read. If the people on the phone happen to be talking in a foreign language, then it's even worse, because the government is reluctant to hire people who speak foreign languages. Gay Arabic speakers - sorry, goodbye, we only want heterosexuals to stop the terrorists. The greatest protector of our freedoms has always been governmental incompetence.
Recently, the Protect America Act came up for renewal, with an additional little bonbon included. Certain telecommunications companies that had followed government orders by wiretapping allegedly suspicious people even before the act was passed the first time (in other words, they acted illegally) would be granted immunity from prosecution for doing illegal things.
Some congressional Democrats, awakened from their years of slumber and/or impotent fist-shaking, didn't like the immunity provision. There followed a whole lot of legislative juju, but in the end the Senate did what the administration wanted (McCain voting for the president; Feinstein voting for; Boxer voting against; Obama voting against; Clinton unable to make time in her busy schedule), and the House voted against the administration, causing the Protect America Act to lapse and immunity not to be offered.
(The reasons the House voted down the proposal are complicated - very conservative Republicans joined very liberal Democrats for procedural reasons that, well, that's another column, and not one I will write.)
Oh, the president was furious. "Somewhere in the world terrorists are planning new attacks on our country." Probably so, although it's not clear that wiretapping Americans is going to help in uncovering them - and it's entirely clear that offering telecoms immunity will do nothing one way or the other about any plotting terrorists.
It's not as if the government has been ordered to stop wiretapping. It went on before the Protect America Act - there is some evidence that, if the wiretaps in place had been properly translated and interpreted, 9/11 might have been averted - and the wiretaps currently in place can remain there for another year, and then, unless Congress caves (always possible), the administration would have to go back to the boring old court-approval thing.
"Judge, somewhere in the world terrorists are planning new attacks on this country."
"Good enough for me. Where do I sign?"
Nevertheless, the defeat is a small step away from a police state, and a small step toward making gigantic corporations accountable for their actions. Now, about those banks ...
I'm sorry, there's a little static on this line. Did you say "bomb" or "bond"? Just curious.
We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by jon carroll.