Trust the President?

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It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are Americans who say, “Trust the president” with respect to spying on Americans, monitoring their conduct, and recording their telephone conversations without a judicially issued warrant. After all, there were those who said, “Trust the president,” when the president and his associates were scaring American grown-ups half to death with the imminent prospect of Saddam Hussein coming to the United States and exploding “mushroom clouds” over American cities. Throughout history, there have been segments of the populace in every society who, mostly out of fear, have said, “Trust our ruler. He will take care of us.”

But as the Framers understood, no one can be trusted with omnipotent power. No one. Not even “good” people.

Consider President Bush’s promise that he’ll employ his power to spy on Americans and record their telephone conversations only against genuine “terrorists” and not against ordinary, law-abiding Americans. One big problem with the president’s promise is that who exactly a “terrorist” is constitutes a very subjective determination. And given the paranoia and fear that inevitably afflict government officials in times of “crisis,” the scale defining “terrorism” inevitably slides toward people who simply oppose the policies of the government, especially as the fruits of such policies turn rotten and bitter.

Ask yourself: Why do government officials monitor anti-war protests and demonstrations? How likely is it that a person who is planning a terrorist attack is going to be speaking at or demonstrating at a public anti-war rally, where he knows that cops, secret agents, and cameras are all over the place?

The problem is that, as their policies begin to fail, the increasingly paranoid and fearful government officials come to believe that their “enemies” include those who are exposing the lies and false realities generated by the government. In the mind of the government official, telling the truth about government policy decreases morale and empowers the enemy.

Thus, people who oppose the government’s policies and tell the truth about such policies increasingly become part of the “problem.” They become a “threat,” one that can more easily be monitored and targeted than genuine terrorists can be.

Remember what the president said early on: In the war on terrorism, you’re either with us or against us. At some point, federal officials ask themselves the troubling question, “Where do those who expose and oppose federal policies fall within that equation?” And inevitably they arrive at the wrong answer to that question.

Thus, the most likely reason that the president isn’t going to the secret, rubberstamp FISA court to secure his warrants is that he and his minions know that they’re targeting Americans for whom not even the rubberstampers on the FISA court would approve a warrant. That is, they’re spying on and monitoring innocent Americans who aren’t “terrorists” but who oppose the president’s war on Iraq or his “war on terrorism” After all, since the secret FISA court rubberstamps virtually all warrant requests anyway, why else would the president not go through the motions of securing the rubberstamp?

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that all this spying and other violations of civil liberties are just part and parcel of the U.S. Empire and its interventionist policies. That is, the policies, including the president’s invasion and war of aggression against Iraq, generate the anger and hatred that produce the terrorist counterstrikes, which then provide the president with the excuse to claim and exercise omnipotent power to fight the terrorists.

That’s why the ultimate solution to all this is not simply to force the president to obey the law with respect to search warrants but instead to abandon the imperial, militarist, interventionist, warlike course that has guided U.S. foreign policy for decades. As James Madison pointed out and as Americans are discovering, war is the greatest threat to our liberty because it encompasses all the other threats, including out-of-control government spending, violations of privacy and civil liberties, overgrown bureaucracies, and sometimes even conscription.

February 28, 2006

Jacob Hornberger [send him mail] is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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