Friday, January 13, 2006

Hold Your Breath, The Big One's Coming

Anyone who doesn't feel a chill down the spine hearing about the NSA spying case doesn't have a pulse. The more details that come out, the more I feel like we're reaching the "Revenge of the Sith" part of the epic, the part where all the pieces fall into place and everyone realizes what's been happening all along but it's too late to do anything about it. Am I in a paranoid mood today? It's hard not to be. The takeover of this country may really be about to happen. For anyone who thinks that's impossible, let me float a few thoughts your way. First of all, I was never fully convinced that the Bush administration would have actually abided by the results of the 2004 election if it had gone John Kerry's way. When you work this hard to consolidate power, break this many laws, cover up this many secrets - in short, when you go this far down the road of authoritarian rule, you don't just hand over power at the results of one little election. We never got to see the Constitutional crisis which could have erupted in 2000 had the vote-counting in Florida gone Al Gore's way, and the same goes for 2004. Two close misses in five years might mean time's up. So my question is, will there be a Presidential election in 2008? I am deadly serious when I say that I have no idea.

Secondly, it is very important to remember that the central principle being debated in the NSA case is not civil liberties versus national security. An accurate news item summing up the debate would read like this: "Sharp debate has issued from Washington lately on the question of whether the President has the right to break the law in matters relating to war and terrorism. President Bush's critics in Congress have argued that the President must abide by laws which govern his conduct of the war on terror. The President, in contrast, has argued that the laws do not apply to him in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief." So I ask you again whether I am being paranoid in wondering whether we are really approaching a watershed moment in American history. I know that past Presidents have often sought extraordinary powers, and usually been denied them. I know that Presidents have tried very hard to change laws that they don't like, sometimes unethically. I know about how Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War, how FDR packed the Supreme Court, and of course about Nixon and Watergate. But I don't ever remember a President arguing before that the laws simply do not apply to him, which is the same as saying that the Executive branch is not compelled to respect any decision or any action of Congress.

So there's an unprecedented fissure opening up between Congress and the Presidency, which will almost certainly provoke a major crisis. But that's not even the bottom of where this is heading. There's also an Executive war against the press which is about to boil over. A White House decision to take on the New York Times over its decision to publish the NSA story could light that powder keg. Will we see the government suspend freedom of the press in the name of national security?

All of this points to the fundamental social and political change which the Bush administration is seeking, ever so methodically, to bring about: the President's actions are to be deemed as always legal and always secret, and to report them or criticize them is to be deemed as always illegal. This is what the White House is basically arguing in its case against the New York Times and in its determination to find and punish those who leaked information about the NSA spying program to the press. National security depends on the President being able to act in secret above the law, and therefore it is a crime against national security to reveal any of these secrets. We are just beginning to see the outline of that argument as it appears.

Of course, this leads to the final war being waged by the administration which is the one against the American people. If Congress fails in its attempt to impeach the President or to compel the Executive branch to comply with elections in 2008 or to prevent the Executive from suspending freedom of the press, then we can expect to see an all out assault against the Bill of Rights, i.e. the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, etc. Life in America will change in ways that are for the moment impossible to predict. I'll offer one prediction though, if this worst case scenario really does come true. Sometime after 2008, the government will outlaw the Democratic Party, and rename it al-Qaeda.

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