Thursday, May 17, 2007

Does Anyone Care That Bush Did Wiretaps Without the Justice Department's Permission?

This is Earth. Isn't it hot?
- Paris Hilton, according to

With all the important news stories of the last few days (no, I’m not talking about Paris Hilton’s jail sentence being commuted for “good behavior,” which is funny because she probably thinks “good behavior” means telling somebody who is unattractive that they’re “hot”), it seemed to slip under the radar that in 2004, the Bush administration decided to flush the U.S. Constitution down the toilet like it was a job application from a qualified candidate who was not from Texas or Pat Robertson’s college.

A Yahoo!/AP article reported that former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that when he was acting Attorney General while John Aschcroft was in the hospital with pancreatitis in March 2004, he was asked by the White House to certify a program of warrantless wiretaps. He refused, citing his concern, as well as concerns expressed by Ashcroft before he got sick, that the program lacked proper oversight and may not have been constitutional.

This was in the heady days for the Bush administration when Congress, run by Republicans, let the White House run wild, like a spoiled four-year-old with an indulgent babysitter. So, of course, the White House did exactly what you would expect them to do: They went to the hospital to try and get Ashcroft to certify the program from his sick bed, and when that gambit failed, they went ahead with the program anyway, acting for three weeks without the approval of the country’s highest law enforcement official.

Ashcroft only certified the program after he was satisfied by certain modifications. But, Comey told the Senate panel, before the accommodation was reached, he, Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller all considered resigning.

This is the kind of story you expect to hear coming out of a country with questionable freedoms like Russia, not the United States, which was once the symbol of democracy to the world. Thanks to the Bush administration, though, we are now the symbol of toppling sovereign governments, torture, detention camps in Guantanamo Bay, and seizing executive power without regard to the rule of law.

But wait, it gets worse. Who from the White House invaded Ashcroft’s hospital room seeking to authorize the patently un-American practice of spying on citizens without a court order? None other than current Attorney General and then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. So, to be clear, the current highest law enforcement official in the country tried to lean on the then Attorney General, Sopranos style, to sign off on unconstitutional behavior by the administration. You can almost see Gonzales running his fingers up and down Ashcroft’s IV line while saying, “You getting all the medicine you need? Would you like it to stay that way?”

And yet there has barely been a peep about this in the media, which is outrageous to me, because in so many ways, this story stinks of disgrace.

First of all, how low have you fallen when John Ashcroft, the man who thinks dancing is a sin and covered up a statue in the Justice Department that had been there for years because the woman was too nude for his tastes, tells you that you have gone too far? (I almost wrote he was “to the left of you,” but it occurred to me that upholding the constitution shouldn’t be a liberal-conservative thing, but a not-a-fascist thing.) If you have acted so outrageously that Ashcroft considered resigning, you really have strayed into some extreme waters.

More importantly, this incident demonstrates two flaws in the Bush administration’s outlook on governing that has dragged this country into the sorry state it currently finds itself. First, its idea that the Justice Department is an extension of the Republican Party. The unprecedented midterm firings of the eight U.S. Attorneys were a symptom of the politicization of Justice that was equally visible in the hospital confrontation in 2004. The mind-set of the administration is/was that the Attorney General’s job was to support the White House’s policies, not, you know, enforce the law.

In 2004, Gonzales was the White House Counsel, so his job was to advise and protect the President. While his portfolio has changed, his actions and attitudes have not. Now that he is at Justice, his obligation is to enforce the law, not to support the President. He just does not act that way. If his conflicting explanations, “I do not remember” performance in front of the Senate committee, and lack of competency are not enough for his ousting, the 2004 hospital incident, and all that it symbolizes, should be the last nudge that pushes him out the door and back on a plane to Texas.

Second, the 2004 incident shows the basic administration belief that they know what is best, and anything that gets in the way (from the husband of an undercover CIA agent to the Constitution) is just a roadblock keeping them from their goals, and one that they are allowed to ram over, regardless of the consequences. There is no room for dissent or alternative approaches. It’s the White House’s way or the highway, regardless of the law or the very nature of a democratic society.

This administration took one of the greatest tragedies this country ever faced, the 9/11 attacks, and used them as a convenient excuse to expand the power of the President at the expense of the rights of the citizens and, as importantly, the very open and democratic nature of our form of government. (Not to mention, to start an unjustified, catastrophic war in Iraq.) It’s a disgrace, and the casual discarding of the Constitution in 2004 is just one example of the administration’s hubris.

If the President acting outside of the Justice Department and the law to violate the rights of American citizens is not a news story, what is? The media has dropped the ball on this one. One might say they were anything but "hot."