Monday, June 26, 2006

When democracy and civil liberties are inconvenient

When the authorities go out of their way to make sure things like democracy and civil liberties don’t get in the way of fighting for things like democracy and civil liberties (or so they claim) then you know something out of kilter.

We keep hearing over and over again how things are different since 9-11 – that we have never fought a war like this before. Yet, it is less that two decades ago that brought the end of the Cold War – a war fought over roughly a half century on as many fronts and in as many ways imaginable. It was also a war unlike any we had ever fought before. There were a number of lessons learned from the Cold War but one of the more important ones was the need to give high priority to practicing democracy and respecting civil liberties despite the tensions created when confronting a foe who does neither. The moral high ground is not an abstraction but a reality that unifies the citizenry and strengthens ties with needed allies.

Compare that with the current situation.

Three years ago, CIA operatives kidnapped a man off the streets of Milan. He was tortured and then disappeared. Our allies, the Italians, were not impressed and are bring criminal charges against the U.S. agents. Then earlier this year it became public that individuals from around the globe caught up in the CIA’s practice of extraordinary rendition were being held in facilities in Europe causing an uproar and seriously testing the strength of the U.S.-European alliance. Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice writes:

The exposure of this CIA kidnapping ring is part of the growing
revulsion throughout Europe and other parts of the world against such American
gangsterism. As Judge Sparato said in Florence: "We know it's a great mistake to
fight terrorism in this way."

For example, by its own involvement in torture, the CIA has given
Al Qaeda and its offshoots an effective recruiting tool. And even among people
across the globe who have supported American efforts to export democracy, these crimes make a mockery of the president's recurring assurances—most recently on
June 14—that "we are a nation of laws and the rule of law. . . . This is a
transparent society."

Now, further angry attention is being focused throughout Europe on
an explosive report by the 46-nation Council of Europe, which enforces the
European Convention on Human Rights. It documents the secret collusion of
certain European countries with the CIA in what the report's chief
investigator—former prosecutor Dick Marty of Switzerland—calls "a spider's web
across the globe." This exposure—says the London-based Financial Times—"is
likely to make it more difficult for European countries to cooperate with U.S.

This isn’t, of course, a rogue security apparatus. Rather it is all too symptomatic of the arrogance of power displayed by the current administration. Michael Kinsley writes in the Washington Post:
For years, all the intelligence agencies have been tussling with the
American Civil Liberties Union over documents about the innovative Bush
administration policy of locking people up in foreign countries where they can
be tortured without the inconvenience of anyone knowing about it or bringing up,
you know, like, the Constitution. It is not yet clear -- though there is little
reason for optimism -- whether the courts will let them get away with it, but
the official position of the executive branch under President Bush is that the
U.S. government can lock you up anywhere in the world, torture you and tell no
one about it. And if someone does find out and starts talking trash like "habeas
corpus" or "Fourth Amendment," too bad: It's all okay under the president's
inherent powers as commander in chief. Congress -- unbeknownst to Congress --
approved it all in its resolution shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, urging the
president to fight terrorism. And the president deputized the CIA and other
agencies to go forth and use this authority, in documents that you can't have
and that may or may not exist.

Meanwhile, in another federal court, the ACLU has been arguing with
the National Security Agency about the wiretapping of international phone calls
to and from the United States. The 1978 intelligence reform law made clear as
cellophane that these agencies had no authority to wiretap citizens of this
country and in this country without permission from a judge. So clear, in fact,
that the president doesn't deny that his wiretapping program violates the 1978
law. Instead, he says that Congress overruled that law in its 2001 resolution to
oppose terrorism. That, plus the usual inherent powers of the presidency.

It's true that you and I are not being grabbed on the streets and
sent to a former secret police torture-training camp in Godforsakistan. Nor is
the government eavesdropping on your international phone calls or mine.
Probably. Because I like you, I'll forgo the usual ominous warning about how
they came after him and then they came after her and then they came after you.
I'll even skip the liberal sermonette about how even bad guys have rights.

But your rights and mine are not supposed to be at the whim of the
government, let alone the president. They are based in the Constitution and the
willingness of those we put in power to obey it -- even as interpreted by judges
they may disagree with. The most distressing aspect of this story is the
apparent attitude of our current rulers that the Constitution is an obstacle to
be overcome -- by conducting dirty business abroad or by wildly disingenuous
interpretations of laws and the Constitution.

Just look at what these supposed worshipers at the shrine of
"strict constructionism" and "original meaning" have done to the 2001
anti-terrorism resolution. Did any senator who voted for this resolution have
any idea that he or she was, in essence, voting to repeal all the protections
for individuals against government agency abuse that Congress enacted in 1978?

The fact that there are countries in this world where the
government can torture people in secret and without fear of courts is supposed
to be a tragedy -- not a convenience.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for addressing the issue of the Bush administration's use of torture. In addition to be one of the worst froms of inhumanity and helping to swell the ranks of jihadists prepared to destroy anyone or anything associated with the United States, it doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

I think that Al Qaeda should be treated not as a nation but as a TERRORIST GROUP!!! They have killed almost 4,000 people on September 11, 2001, and over 3,000 U.S. Servicemen in Iraq and Afganistan. The CIA and other intelligence organizations SHOULD be able to use less-than-lethal methods to ensure the security of the America and its allies.