Department of Fatherland Security
By Crispin Sartwell
It has been a very good month for American liberty.
The free press has performed precisely the functions Jefferson foresaw
for it. The Washington Post reported
that the CIA had established a series of secret internment facilities in
Europe. The New York Times
reported that president has authorized the NSA to spy on Americans, with no
authorization from Congress or oversight of any court.
Congress itself seems to have recovered the function envisioned by the
republic's founders as providing a check on executive power. It has refused to
reauthorize portions of the Patriot Act and forced the administration to sign
off on an explicit repudiation of torture.
The response of the administration to 9.11 was, in every aspect,
authoritarian. That is a devastating indictment of the personalities involved,
of Dick Cheney, of Donald Rumsfeld, of John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales:
authoritarians operating in and supplementing an atmosphere of fear. Their
actions have been as much a matter of pathology as of policy.
They interpreted the Congress's authorization of armed conflict against
terrorists as a suspension of the Constitution: of the writ of habeus corpus;
of Article 3, Section 3 on the procedures for trying accusations of treason; of
the 4th amendment provisions against unreasonable searches; of the due process
provisions of the 5th amendment; of the sixth amendment guidelines for criminal
trials; of the 8th amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.
The "black site" program of secret prisons is criminal on its
face. Ask yourself: why would a government want secret prisons? It is likely
that these are essentially torture facilities, an interpretation bolstered by
the administration's breathtaking resistance to declaring publicly that it
would abide by the Constitution and international law on the treatment of
prisoners. I would like to know how many people were killed in those
The claim that the executive can unilaterally authorize indefinitely
widespread surveillance of American citizens is a flat contradiction of our
form of government, as clearly unconstitutional as anything could be. It is the
approach of a KGB or a Stasi. It is hard, indeed, to understand why the
administration is seeking re-authorization of the Patriot Act: it claims,
without it, to have all the powers enumerated in that act and many more.
Essentially, the Bush administration has declared permanent martial law.
"Homeland," they say again and again; it might as well be
"fatherland." They have created whole new bureaucracies. Under their
authority, we have become a place that would be unrecognizable to James Madison
or Alexander Hamilton as the country whose form of government they created.
In the hysterical aftermath of 9.11, the Congress acquiesced in the
abrogation of the Constitution. They passed a vague declaration of hostilities
that the administration interpreted as giving it aconstitutional"war
powers." Every senator except Russ Feingold voted for the Patriot Act.
The passivity and connivance of the press were disgusting. Judith Miller
of the New York Times and Bob Woodward
of the Washington Post, for
example, participated in the administration's cover-up of its disinformation
campaign with regard to Saddam's weapons programs.
That these institutions have come back to their senses is perhaps not a
tribute to their fierce independence, but to their sensitivity to popular
opinion: as soon as Bush appeared vulnerable in the polls, Congress and the
press rediscovered their love of freedom.
There are limits to this backlash. Congress will probably end up
renewing the Patriot Act. The new domestic surveillance programs may never be
subject to oversight by anyone. It is extremely disturbing that the Post and the Times both sought approval from administration officials before publishing
their stories. The Post honored
the administration's request not to publish the locations of the secret
prisons, and so helped them move and continue their operations. The Times, incomprehensibly, sat on the NSA story for a year.
So the stories both critiqued and enabled the strategies of authoritarianism.
But whatever the reason and whatever the limits, the resistance of the
press and the Congress to the authoritarians has begun.
And if Americans are, as George Bush says (in a voice that should be
dripping with sarcasm) a freedom-loving people, the resistance will continue.