Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Unsolved Spying Mysteries

We are all used to hearing some whoppers told by President Bush whenever he stands up to talk. I for one look forward to them. There is one Presidential lie in particular which weighed on my mind, however, as I heard it being told. It was the story, told repeatedly in recent weeks, about how the CIA failed to monitor or catch two of the 9/11 hijackers who were living in San Diego before the attacks. Bush says they could have been caught if the NSA had been allowed to wiretap them. This claim is untrue on a number of levels(a Bush specialty,) as 1) no existing law would have prevented the NSA from wiretapping the plotters with a court order as FISA requires, and 2) the CIA already knew of their existence yet failed to disclose it to the FBI. What is really suspicious about this story though is the unanswered question of why the Bush administration first began to circumvent the FISA court in the weeks after 9/11. I don't believe that it's because the President didn't understand the law (though he now pretends not to) or out of sheer willfulness just decided to ignore it. Rather, the only plausible explanation is that the President started asking for warrants which the FISA court rejected. This would be truly extraordinary since the court exists for the simple purpose of oversight and has hardly ever interfered with any request for a warrant which a President has requested. There would have to be a truly exceptional reason for the court to refuse such a request, especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. What could that reason be? The only possible explanation is that the President was requesting the power to spy on purely domestic individuals and organizations who were unrelated to any terrorist threat or national enemy. That means, most likely, peace groups, activists, and political opponents. Knowing what I know about the Bush administration, i.e. that it has no scruples and makes no difference between political opponents and enemies of the state, and given the tantalizingly unanswered questions about this case, I would be willing to bet that this is close to the truth.

The Twilight of Legal Abortion

The swearing-in of Samuel Alito as the newest Supreme Court justice was a somber day for abortion-rights advocates, some of whom spoke very eloquently about what is likely the end of the era of legal abortion. Here was Catholics for a Free Choice President Frances Kissling, as reported in Salon:

"In a way," she mused, "Roe was a socially transformative decision made in a country that was not socially transformed. In terms of social values, in terms of attitudes towards women, it was a profound anomaly. And it's not surviving. Whether it gets overturned or continues on the road to restriction, the concept of women as moral agents in relation to their own bodies is being rejected year by year by year.

"It was so far ahead of its time," she continued. "It was a visionary decision. The failure, the sad part of it, was that we weren't ready for it. The sad, sad, sad thing is society is less ready for it than it was 30 years ago, but that's not the fault of Roe." Roe, and the larger philosophy behind it -- that women are capable of moral agency -- Kissling said, "was never really realized. But maybe what one can say is that in history, 100 years from now, or 200 years from now, when Roe is looked at, it will be looked at as one of the most-forward-thinking, principled decisions for women. Whether it survives or not, it existed. And it will be looked at as an important moment."

Those are serious, heartfelt words which bear careful thinking about. Kissling is probably right that Roe really did raise the cultural consciousness of "a woman's body" in a way which had never been done before, and gave women unprecedented power (executive, veto-power) over their own bodies even when that autonomy collided with that of other, even less visible bodies. However, that wasn't entirely a good thing. The pornography boom of the 1970's also heightened the awareness of women's bodies, and demeaned them for the sake of the same principle of autonomy. As I have written before, I don't believe that criminalization is a just or reasonable solution to the problem of abortion, especially when it is coupled, as it surely will be, with an insanely contradictory push to limit access to birth control. It is the anti-birth control fanatics who are the real danger, and they are also the ones who will be emboldened by future anti-abortion rulings.

So Kissling is right that something is changing, and something is being lost. An important era in history really is coming to a close. An experiment in women's rights is being concluded. It's hard to say if Roe was ahead of its time or if it was fatally flawed. Perhaps no one should be given as much power over their own bodies as Roe attempted to give pregnant women. Nevertheless there is little doubt in my mind that the confirmation of Samuel Alito is a bad thing for women, and that the consequences will be dire.

Perhaps what is really being lost with the passing of Roe is the possibility of a just and lasting solution to the abortion problem, one which would have balanced the right of women to determine the course of their own pregnancy with the objective reality of the fetus as a developing person. That solution was taking shape during the Clinton years, with the goal of making abortion "safe, legal, and rare." Like Roe, it's quickly becoming a thing of the past.

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.