November 30, 2006

Masturbatory Exercises in Substanceless Self-Promotion

The Associated Press reported Monday that, after a delay of more than a year, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) - which had been appointed ostensibly "to guard Americans' privacy and civil liberties during the war on terror" - has been made privy to the inner workings of the government's warrantless electronic eavesdropping program. The reactions of the board members were almost universally positive:

Board members told The Associated Press they were impressed by the safeguards the government has built into the NSA's monitoring of phone calls and computer transmissions and wished the administration could tell the public more about them to ease distrust.

"If the American public, especially civil libertarians like myself, could be more informed about how careful the government is to protect our privacy while still protecting us from attacks, we'd be more reassured," said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer who is the board's lone liberal Democrat.

Davis said he believes the administration could tell the public more about the program's protections without compromising national security.

Close on the heels of this article was another in the The San Jose Mercury News reporting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is launching an inquiry to determine whether the same Bush Administration warrantless surveillance program complies with government procedures. Prior to the mid-term elections, Congressional Democrats had been stonewalled in this inquiry by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department Inspector General who is now leading the investigation, and further obstructed when Fine passed the inquiry request to the Office of Professional Responsibility, whose investigators were then personally denied necessary security clearances by President Bush himself.

The implication of these stories is that a new spirit of openness has bloomed in the Bush White House, and that checks and balances are slowly being restored in the wake of the GOP's loss of both House and Senate majorities. Most tellingly, it is noted, even the "liberal Democrat" and "civil libertarian" on the PCLOB has expressed his wholehearted support for the protections that are built into the warrantless surveillance program. Clearly, there is a realization among Republican leadership that they have gone too far in their pursuit of the "War on Terror," and that fundamental constitutional rights must be preserved!

Or not.

Upon closer examination, it is revealed that the new investigation will not deal with the legality of the warrantless surveillance program, which was ruled both unconstitutional and illegal in August . (That ruling is being appealed by the government.) As Mr. Fine put it, the review will focus not on the NSA, but on the Justice Department, and will "examine the department's controls and use of information related to the program and the department's compliance with legal requirements governing the program." In other words, the Inspector General will check to make certain that the DOJ is complying with rules governing a program that violates both the law and the Constitution.

Further, the opinions of members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board - despite having been latched onto with fervor by Republican supporters - are wholly irrelevant. Individuals on the board may take whatever comfort they choose in what they have been shown by the Bush Administration, but it is difficult to understand why anyone should believe or accept that a sunny review from Lanny Davis* somehow trumps the rule of law. In short, the NSA warantless surveillance program remains illegal and unconstitutional, and the opinions of the Board are every bit as meaningless as its supposed powers of oversight.

The investigation by the Justice Department and the quotes from the PCLOB are not chance events, however, despite their lack of substance. Rather, they are elements of Bush Administration efforts to retrench its image and present a less imperial face to the public, while continuing to operate with the same utter disregard for the Constitution they have shown since claiming the White House. Senator Arlen Specter was quoted today expressing doubts that the incoming 110th Congress will be given details about the NSA program, and even the much-heralded Iraq Study Group's upcoming recommendations on the Iraq morass already appear to be nothing more than toothless re-spinning of the current stay-the-course "strategy".

The Democrats' retaking of Congress was an important milestone, but one need only observe that so-called advances and reassurances offered by the GOP continue to be nothing more than masturbatory exercises in substanceless self-promotion to determine that there has been very little actual change emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Recent actions are empty gestures and sound bites that will not restore the civil liberties that have been lost, address the laws that have been violated, or significantly change course in Iraq. The spots on the Republican leopard may no longer be as bold, but they have not changed.

* Even if the PCLOB's position could be considered a relevant counterweight to the most recent ruling on the program's illegality and unconstitutionality, it would still be the kind of conflict of interest that should be embarrassing to those who participate in it. The Board is staffed with people hand-picked by President Bush to monitor a program he himself champions, and to whom they report. Additionally, Lanny Davis' supposedly "liberal" credentials are wholly spurious. He has made statements backing GOP actions on Terri Schiavo, criticizing left-of-center blogs for positions taken within their comment sections by people other than the authors of those blogs, and even fretted that Democrats would somehow "politicize" the Jack Abramoff scandal that was so emblematic of the corruption in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress.

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