The Constitutional crises of 2006
De facto dictatorship looms if America doesn't act now
In the waning days of 2005, a number of Beltway developments have pointed to 2006 as a pivotal year in the future -- if there is to be any -- of American democracy.
The most far-reaching of these has been the Bush administration's aggressive advocacy of its once-secret program of NSA spying on American citizens. No lawyer outside a small clique of Bush appointees has seriously defended the NSA program, already renewed 30 times by Bush, as legal. Indeed, the only way that it can possibly not be construed as a blatant, ongoing violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (note the key word: Foreign) is if the President has the authority, as Commander-in-Chief, to suspend or override any law. And this is precisely the claim George Bush is making.
Combine this with the fact that Bush and his cabal have also claimed that their so-called "War on Terror" -- the Dubya-launched war Bush is referring to when he calls himself a "wartime president" -- is one they expect, and presumably intend, to last for up to 100 years. In other words, what Bush is claiming is that for the next several generations, the rule of law and the Constitution need not apply. Bush is thus claiming the right as "wartime president" to do anything he likes. Anything. Hey, why not disband Congress? (There'd probably be a lot of public support for that one.) Why not suspend the 2008 election?
This is deeply alarming.
A Boston Globe story last Friday speculated, and a follow-up piece in Saturday's New York Times essentially (and without any mention of possible illegality) confirmed, that the NSA surveillance has operated by creating search terms and using computers to monitor the foreign calls not just of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives (as the White House has claimed), but all Americans' international calls, e-mails, and faxes, and some domestic communications as well -- spying on literally millions upon millions of people. If particular terms are a match, the taped calls are automatically culled and referred to a human ear for follow-up.
If true, this would certainly explain why Bush did not use the secret FISA courts to obtain warrants; no court would countenance surveillance upon countless millions of Americans. It matters little whether the spying is done by computer or by human; humans still have to select the search terms and target the individuals. Done in secret, with no accountability except to a highly politicized White House, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to prevent Bush and his cronies from using the NSA to spy upon anyone they want to.
One wonders how this might have affected the 2004 presidential campaign, for example.
The NSA scandal is not the only crisis looming. On January 9, the Senate will begin confirmation hearings on the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, a radical conservative who, among many other things, has advocated (in a just-exhumed 1984 memo while a Reagan Dept. of Justice lawyer) for exactly the sort of warrantless domestic spying now being conducted by Bush. In his years on the federal bench, Alito has been a rabid advocate of expanded Executive Branch power and an emasculated Congress -- right in line with Bush and with several other Supreme Court conservatives. The addition of Alito to the Supreme Court would probably doom Roe v. Wade, but far beyond that, it portends a massive expansion of corporate and state power, at the expense of the civil liberties and legal redress of ordinary Americans.
Also in January, Congress must deal, once and for all, with the PATRIOT Act. For the last two months the news has been overflowing with items, large and small, demonstrating the Bush administration's abuses of power justified by 9-11 and the "War on Terror": NSA spying, torture, CIA rendition and a gulag of secret prisons, the ongoing court battle over the fate of U.S. citizen and "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla, the clearly illegal warrantless use of nuclear radiation monitors outside thousands of Muslim-associated sites in six American cities (revealed last week by U.S. News and World Report), a Swedish report that there are now 80,000 names on the U.S. government's secret air travel "watchlist," Sen. Lindsay Graham's amendment that gutted habeas corpus rights and any hope of either due process or prisoner of war protections for prisoners in America's overseas gulag, a little-noticed 12-9-05 New York Times report that "More than 8,000 people have been mistakenly tagged for immigration violations as a result of the Bush administration's strategy of entering the names of thousands of immigrants in a national crime database," numerous revelations of government-funded, privately attributed propaganda... the list is seemingly endless, and begs the question of what further abuses of government power remain hidden from the public eye. Congress must decide next month whether any of it matters.
The nation's 2006 constitutional crisis is not simply confined to the Executive Branch. Disgraced Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff was reported last week to be close to a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. The deal would exchange a guilty plea for existing wire fraud and forgery charges for his cooperation in the ongoing corruption investigation of numerous members of Congress and their aides. It has already been confirmed that more than four dozen members of Congress have accepted large donations, gifts, and/or travel from Abramoff or his clients at about the same time they took legislative action favorable to Abramoff or his clients. That's only one lobbyist out of the tens of thousands within the Beltway. There's plenty more stench afoot, and Abramoff knows how Capitol Hill works and where many of the skeletons are buried. If he chooses to, he could blow the lid off of Congress. Regardless of how many Congressional indictments are handed down in 2006 (and the answer is not "zero"), the Abramoff scandals are likely to tar both Republicans and Democrats and beg the question, during an election year, of whether any politician can be trusted any longer to care about the needs and desires of his or her constituents. That is a profound crisis for democracy, and it comes at exactly the time when a Republican-dominated Congress and a heavily Republican-stacked Supreme Court are the only two political institutions with the authority to rein in the dictatorial excesses of the Bush administration.
The year 2006 brings a number of urgent international problems for the United States: illegal, immoral, and futile Bush-created wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; increasing political and moral isolation in the world; our ongoing, criminal failure to act on global warming, to name three. At home, there are other problems as well: the imminent death of a major American city (New Orleans) and the fate of its refugees; a health care system spiraling out of control.
But these are symptoms. The disease is the escalating inability of American democracy to follow the Constitution and to respect the rights and honor the participation of ordinary American citizens. The disease is a political process that cannot solve serious problems because it is wholly owned by enormous corporate and political interests, with power concentrated in a relative handful of men (and occasionally women) who owe their power to those interests -- plus, at the top, a lying, murderous president who is claiming the right to break any law.
And more and more Americans are wondering whether the voting machines are rigged.
The only solution is a clean sweep. Congress must reject Samuel Alito, and Congress, if it is (in the words the Bush White House once reserved for the U.N.) "to remain relevant," must impeach George Bush and Dick Cheney. In both cases, citizen outrage will be required to force a corrupt and reluctant Congress to act. And in November, citizens must use the leverage our once-relevant Constitution gives us, and we must sweep the whole rotten Congressional carcass from office -- conclusively enough that no Republican dirty tricks or Diebold-style tampering can alter the results. Regardless of party, we must replace lawmakers, at the local, state, and especially federal level, with candidates who are truly responsive and accountable to the ordinary people who elect them.
It's either that, or by 2007 we will be living in a de facto dictatorship. It's our choice.