Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The one-way mirror

"The liberties of the people never were nor ever will be secure when the transactions of their ruler may be concealed from them." - Patrick Henry

That quote can be found in John Dean's polemic, Worse than Watergate, in which he makes the case that the Bush administration is the most (dangerously) secretive government of his lifetime (Dean worked for the Nixon administration.) The book explains the systematic nature of secrecy in this administration, something the media has failed to properly communicate to the public.

The book was written before the '04 election, and in it Dean predicted that if President Bush were re-elected that his failure to govern openly would lead to scandals coming to surface since corruption and incompetence hide in secret, and because unanswered questions would have people digging for information. As we see from the ongoing investigation of the outing of Valerie Plame, the NSA warrantless surveillance, the secret prisons, the not "worst of the worst" at Gitmo, the manipulated intelligence before the invasion of Iraq, NSA domestic calls database, etc. Dean was correct in his prediction.

Today, ABC reports that

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.
Think what this means if it can be confirmed. It means the administration is seeking to curb the freedom of the press to report the conduct of our government, by preventing it from gaining access to that information in the first place.

The stories the administration seeks to stop are not matters of national security. They are matters that are politically damaging to the administration. They are actions that the administration does not feel confident would be approved were they to go through the normal democratic channels. The administration wants to see what we are doing, but we are not to see what it is doing.

A government that governs in secret is a government that can not be held accountable for its actions. And a government that rules without accountability is the definition of despotism.

"It is nothing strange, that men, who think themselves unaccountable, should act unaccountably" - John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letter's #33

Update: ABC received confirmation from the FBI that their phone records are being investigated. The FBI is seeking these records by use of a provision in the Patriot Act that allows the agency to obtain this information with national security letters. One will recall that the Washington Post previously reported that "more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources," are issued by the FBI, representing "a hundredfold increase over historic norms." The Post also noted

The burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information they yield into government data banks -- and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined.
The article also states

Senior FBI officials acknowledged in interviews that the proliferation of national security letters results primarily from the bureau's new authority to collect intimate facts about people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
This (and the other story alleging that the NSA is seeking to database all calls made in the United States) would seem to conflict with the President's assurance (h/t Orcinus) that, "We are not trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."

In Worse than Watergate, Dean makes the point that the President has used Executive Orders to effectively rewrite legislation (a tradition not new to this president), which struck me as being a similar means of overstepping the legislative branch to the signing statements the President uses to issue vetoes without issuing a veto. I would be interested to see a journalist attempt to put these orders in the same sort of context as the Boston Globe did with the signing statements.

Update 2: Glenn writes that GOP Senators on the Judiciary Committee have dropped judicial review regarding the legality of the NSA program from legislation legalizing the surveillance, which would allow the President to side-step the judiciary, another means of avoiding accountability.

And consider the oddity of a Congress that rewards Presidential law breaking, and encroachment on their legislative powers, by legalizing the President's actions, which effectively serves to weaken the Legislative branch of government.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Think Progress has a post up about a May 5 presidential memorandum saying DNI Negroponte may authorize companies to conceal activities related to national security. Maybe it's tinfoil hattish, but the timing is interesting, given the recent, belated, teleco denials of wrongdoing. And it's another example of the Bush administration's monarchical approach to governing.

Justice Robert Jackson is quoted often these days, and this sentence in his Youngstown opinion struck me as especially apt today: "With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law, and the law be made by parliamentary deliberations." Enough said.