Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Not Secret Anymore

Incredipundit!'s slight return: For truly "Indeed!" worthy material (and more links to even more "Indeed!" worthy commentary) on the administration spying on US citizens, see this series of posts by Daniel Nexon at the Duck of Minerva. It includes some "Heh" worthy snark at this piece of sub-Straussian hackwork by William Kristol and Gary Schmitt.
Incredipundit! exits stage Left.

On a more serious note, I wish I could say I was shocked at these developments. However, you don't get raised by parents whose entry into political activism coincided with the advent of COINTLPRO without developming a healthy skepticism about what the executive branch will do in its own best interest. Also, you don't grow up where I did and work in the industry I do without some direct exposure to the "national security culture". Those who know all four verses of "My Heart's In San Francisco (But My Brain is In Fort Meade)" will know what I'm talking about. For those who don't, direct exposure to the "national security culture" means that many of your friends (and most of your coworkers) either know or are related to someone (always law-abiding, almost always a civilian) who has had their phone tapped and their background checked - sometimes multiple times. This is because said people, either directly or indirectly, work or have worked for (or sometimes failed to have been employed by) the NSA. In other words, you get familiar with the ability of government to monitor.

This doesn't mean I'm not appalled. And you should be too. It's not just because freedom-loving individuals ought to distrust their government (and I do hold steady to that ol' chesnut about them's what give up liberty for the sake of security deserve neither liberty or security). There are entirely practical reasons why it's a terrible idea to let the executive branch run wild. For that, I turn to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson(warning, pdf), former chief of staff to Collin Powell. Discussing the intentions of the framers of 1945 National Security Act, he says:

They did not want another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They even amended the Constitution to make sure they didn’t get one for more than eight years. But they didn’t want the secrecy, they didn’t want the concentration of power, they didn’t want the lack of transparency into principal decisions that got people killed, even though they’d been successful in arguably one of the greatest conflicts the world has seen. And so they set about trying to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again.

I don’t think even his critics would have argued that FDR wasn’t a brilliant politician and a brilliant leader. But let’s think about it for a moment, if you are one of the framers. How often does America get brilliant leaders? Put them down on paper. I can count them myself on one hand. You can perhaps count them on two hands and make persuasive arguments for the additions. I prefer one hand.

So we need a system of checks and balances and institutional fabric that can withstand anybody – or at least nearly so. (Laughter.) You know, you laugh, but I’m not trying to solicit your laughter. I think it’s a real problem in our democracy. You have to have a system that is so elastic, so resilient, so able to take punches that at one time one branch can supplant another, or one branch can come up and check another. It’s the old business of checks and balances.

If you concentrate power and you do it in a way that is not that different from the way Franklin Roosevelt concentrated it, but you don’t have someone who is brilliant at the utilization of that power, you’ve got problems. You’ve got problems. You may have problems even if you have someone who is brilliant. Go ask people who’ve written about Woodrow Wilson – although I wouldn’t say Woodrow Wilson had concentrated power quite the way FDR did...But too much power, too much secrecy – they wanted to get rid of that.

There are plenty of misguided people - like William Kristol, Ann Coulter, whoever - who will argue that "Bush is a brilliant leader, so quit your worrying, shut up, and let the man do the job we paid all this money to get him to do". But if it's the case that Bush is such a great leader, then why did he circumvent a law which was constructed to make it easy for him to do what he wanted to in the first place? If you're conspiracy minded, see Brad DeLong for one possible reason. However, please do not justify this with "BECAUSE WE'RE AT WAR WITH ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS AND THEY DON'T FOLLOW OUR LAWS YOU CLUELESS LIBERAL MOONBAT" because that isn't an answer. The law was designed to make it easy to do exactly what he wanted to do. If he and his lawyers couldn't, in the wake of 9/11, make a convincing case to a FISA court, then he is not only not brilliant, he is incompetent, and he really ought to think about getting new lawyers. The example Kristol gives - in which the Justice Department felt they didn't have enough to get a FISA warrant to monitor one of the 9/11 plotters - actually raises more questions about the competence of Ashcroft's Justice Department and thus Bush's leadership. It does not demonstrate a need for more executive power.

It gets worse. When a president does something like this, it undermines the credibility of the institutions invovled and undermines the important work that members of those institutions do. Think about how many people distrust the CIA, think about what Hoover's machinations did to the credibility of the FBI. And when the public distrusts these institutions, it makes doing the jobs that much harder. But don't take my word for it. A sitting member of the FISA court resigned today for what appears to be that reason.

On a more philosophical note, I have to say I am sick and effin' tired of the neo-cons and their worship of "great leaders" and their justifications for this kind of behavior. Every time you see a Kristol or a Brooks or a Powerliner or some other Straussian instance Lincoln, Churchill, FDR (and now Bush) as examples of "brilliant leadership", it should send a chill down your spine. Straussians don't admire noble ends. They admire willingness to use extreme means to acquire power. I've spent the last 6 months reading Strauss, Bloom, and analysis of their work, and what I've come away with is that they worship power and they consider facility with "great politics" to be nothing more than an aptitude for concentrating power in the hands of a few select people. There is nothing esoteric or deep about this (and if these people weren't the largest influence in our politics right now it would be funny that there's an industry and community built around endless discussion and mystification of such a simple premise). It's time to take this crap out of government and send these people back where they belong - to the Ivory Tower, where they can spend endless nights surrounded by classical texts, drinking fine wine and engaged in tiresome pontification on the finer points of Machiavelli, the significance of the number 43, and what secret messages Plato has sent from beyond the grave. This crap does not belong in government, where real decisions effect the lives (and sometimes cause the deaths) of millions of real people.

Update: Incredipundit! enters stage right: Incredipundit! isn't sure if this post by Larry C. Johnson deserves "Indeed" or "Heh". Probably some of both. But Incredipundit! urges you to "Read The Whole Thing" because what he says is "Shocking, if true."
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