Thursday, December 29, 2005

What Else Don't We Know About? (Part II)

John Dean has described the Bush administration as more secretive than Richard Nixon’s infamously obsessive presidency. Dean knows something about the topic—he served as Nixon’s White House Counsel. As stories about some of the Bush administration’s secrets come out, we’re all getting an idea of just how close to the vest the Bush men and women hold their cards.

Secrecy is not inherently a bad thing and may, of course, be necessary at times. However, for President Bush, secrecy seems to be a way to keep very unpleasant, possibly illegal, activities hidden. Nearly three years ago, Bush and his then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice authorized wiretapping of the home and office telephones, and e-mail, of members of the United Nations Security Council. The administration apparently wanted to find out how Security Council members would vote on a resolution for war in Iraq. Last month, we learned that the administration set up secret CIA prisons in Soviet-era facilities in eastern Europe. This may have been an attempt to avoid legal restrictions on torture and other coercive interrogation methods. We still don’t know who Vice President Cheney met with to develop energy policy early in the administration’s first term; nor do we know why it has been necessary to keep this information secret.

Most recently it has been reported, and President Bush himself acknowledged, that the administration ordered secret wiretapping of Americans without seeking warrants or court orders, as required by federal statute. As the administration has been mum about the details of this program, we can only speculate as to why this spying was conducted in secret.

These are some of the secret activities that have been uncovered. A question that naturally arises is: what else is the President up to? What else is there that we don’t know about? Will we find out next year that the administration has a political enemies list made up of journalists and others considered hostile to the administration’s views? Has the FBI been rifling through the bank records of thousands of Americans, without a warrant? Have federal agents been entering Americans’ homes without warrants? Exactly how many Americans have been placed under government surveillance, and why?

The only way to begin to get answers to these questions is for Congress to truly fulfill its oversight duties. It needs to ask tough questions of the president, and it is no longer sufficient for the president or his advisors to say “trust us”. If the administration is concerned about confidentiality, it can ask for appropriate measures to be taken. Congress has dealt with classified information before and there are procedures set up to keep national security information secret (and if those procedures aren’t good enough, better ones can be implemented). But there must be oversight, and it is not enough to tell a few Congressional leaders about secret spying on the condition that they can tell no one else or even consult with anyone else about possible illegality.

This president has demonstrated he cannot be permitted to operate behind closed doors. In fact, no president should be left entirely to his own devices. We have a constitutional system of checks and balances provided by the separation of powers among the three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial. That brilliantly designed system cannot operate, however, when the president keeps the other branches in the dark. It is not enough for the president to say “we are at war and I need to be able to address national security issues”. That cannot be an excuse for untrammeled executive power or unquestioned presidential secrecy. For one thing, the vaguely defined (and undeclared) “war on terror” threatens to go on indefinitely. Does this president expect Congress, the judiciary, and the American people to cede power indefinitely to this and future administrations?

Republicans currently control both branches of Congress. However, some Republican Senators, including Spector, Snowe, Hagel and others, have voiced serious concerns about the secret surveillance program and have indicated they will hold investigations. It is to be hoped that these investigations take place and that members of Congress make clear that neither this administration, nor any administration, has carte blanche to decide when to operate in secrecy.


Anonymous Craig said...

Excellent post.

Another reason to wonder what other secrets Bush is hiding is simply his low credibility. Not just what else is he hiding but what else in dark places is he lying about?

The UN spying is a dead giveaway that there is probably more going on. I have little use for conspiracy theories but this president has a habit of exceeding expectations.

I still think of Abu Ghraib and how I thought it was just a few bad apples. Well, I was wrong.

One of the few hopeful signs I see is that there are career professionals who know what the law is and who take seriously their oath to the Constitution. It is because of these professionals we're finding out about some of Bush's misdeeds. If only there were more of them.

2:13 AM  
Blogger Chris Edelson said...

thanks Craig. I 100$ agree with you on conspiracy theories, but you put it the right way--Bush somehow manages to always exceed expectations in these areas.

an excellent point about those who take their oath seriously. Makes me think of Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill to an extent (he backed down quickly, but sort of understandable as admin came at him hard), Colleen Rowley, whoever spoke up about secret spying. A lot depends on people like this. When I read All the Presidents' Men I remember thinking that if John Dean didn't step forward to testify, things might have turned out differently.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Chris Edelson said...

100%, I meant!

10:02 AM  
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