Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
December 19, 2005
President Bush is looking more and more like Richard Nixon every day--between his secret plan to win the war and his domestic spying operation. Certainly Sunday night's "mistakes were made" Oval Office speech smacked of a Nixonian combination of self-pity and stubborn pugnaciousness.
All Bush needs now is an official enemies list. And who knows, maybe he has one. There's no telling who is a target of the White House/NSA eavesdropping program. In the biggest news of the week, we learned last Thursday that the New York Times has been sitting on a story all year that the White House has a secret spying operation, authorizing the NSA to listen in on overseas phone calls placed by Americans. The program defies the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the FBI and the NSA to obtain warrants from a special court if they want to tap phones and conduct other forms of electronic surveillance of Americans. Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney have gone out of their way to insist that the warrant process is a cumbersome barrier that would prevent them from "saving lives." Had they been able to spy on Americans at will, it "might have led us to be able to prevent 9/11," the Vice President claimed. Never mind that the warrant process can be expedited to take hours or even minutes, according to the New York Times. Under especially urgent circumstances, the government can even get a warrant 72 hours AFTER the spying has already begun.
Naturally, the White House insists that it is only spying on "terrorists"--though it is unwilling to allow Congress or the courts to review any evidence that the targets of its spying have any terrorist links at all. In the same way, Bush continues to insist that withdrawing from Iraq would be a victory for "the terrorists.” The term is so broad it can cover anyone the Administration deems an enemy. And this constant harangue is what is wearing down support for the Administration.
How many times can Bush use the threat of terrorism to terrify Americans into giving him carte blanche to violate civil liberties at home, torture people abroad, and recklessly disregard any political or legal process that might stand in his way? The controlling, secretive style of this White House is particularly distasteful given its lousy track record in Iraq, its failure to prevent 9/11 despite all the warnings, and then letting Osama bin Laden get away. "Just trust us" isn't cutting it anymore, as Bush's sinking poll numbers show. Even Republicans aren't buying it. Dick Cheney's defense of torture as a necessary technique in the war on terror lost to John McCain's ringing denunciation of cruelty to prisoners, and the White House was forced to drop its opposition. The Senate's rejection of the USA Patriot Act is another bad sign for the Administration--though a deal for reauthorization might still be worked out before the act expires.
With so much evidence of Administration bumbling and wrongdoing--from the phony intelligence that go us into the war in Iraq to the gross miscalculation of the war's winnability, to the violations of the Constitution and human rights--there is no reason a movement to throw out Bush, ala Richard Nixon, couldn't gain traction.
Unfortunately, one of the highest profile Democrats, and an all-but-certain candidate for President in 2008, Hillary Clinton, took the opportunity last week to sponsor two pieces of legislation that show how far her party is from mounting an effective opposition: one was an anti-flag-burning act, the other was a new form of vetting for adult content on DVD rentals.
Not surprisingly, former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan praised Hillary for her reluctance to seem unpatriotic, and her willingness to give Bush the benefit of the doubt on the Iraq war. But the rest of the country is not so patient. "I can't imagine a more shocking example of an abuse of power," said Senator Russ Feingold, during the floor debate on reauthorizing the Patriot Act, "than to eavesdrop on American citizens without first getting a court order based on some evidence that they are possibly criminals, terrorists, or spies."
Feingold was the lone Senate voice against the Patriot Act four years ago. Now he is joined by a majority of his colleagues in blocking it--in part because of the news of NSA domestic spying news.
Abuse of power--that's another phrase from the Nixon years, and one that may ultimately be used to sum up the legacy of the Bush Administration.