Friday, January 19, 2007

Remember how we claimed that our critics were unpatriotic coddlers of the terrorists? Forget what we said

Yet another reason to question everything the Bush administration says:

Until Wednesday of this week, the president and his surrogates were absolutely adamant about the need to conduct a warrantless domestic surveillance program and to choose their surveillance targets with no oversight from anybody. After the secret operation was exposed by The New York Times, they repeatedly insisted that, in a post-9/11 world, national security would be imperiled if they were forced to submit their surveillance requests to a special court, as mandated by a 1978 federal law.

But, exercising their usual partisan spirit, they went further. They repeatedly contended that anybody who opposed their point of view – in other words, anybody who thought that the Bush administration should obey the law – was essentially aiding the terrorists and weakening America.

The examples are too numerous to mention. But here’s President Bush last October, politicizing the issue during the ’06 midterm election campaign: “The stakes in this election couldn’t be more clear. If you don’t think we should be listening in on the terrorist, then you ought to vote for the Democrats. If you want your government to continue listening in when al Qaeda planners are making phone calls into the United States, then you vote Republican.”

Yet now, lo and behold, the Bush team has suddenly announced that, henceforth, they will voluntarily submit their surveillance requests to the special court, as mandated by federal law.

Which basically means that all their previous rhetoric impugning the patriotism of their critics has been rendered inoperative.

It’s probably not a complete belly-up capitulation, of course, because Bush officials won't say whether they would still do what they wanted if the court turned them down. But it’s nevertheless a striking development, which prompts a number of questions: Why the change of heart? Is the country safer today than it was yesterday, thereby making it safe for the Bush administration to obey the law? And does this mean that all the critics, who were deemed to be soft on terrorists prior to Wednesday, have now been retroactively restored to partiotic citizenship?

It doesn’t take a political science degree to chart the change of heart. Those Democrats who were once painted as threats to national security are now running Capitol Hill, courtesy of the ’06 election. And a lawsuit against the warrantless program has reached a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, with arguments scheduled for early February.

If the Bush administration truly believes that critics of its program are imperiling national security, it would still be making those arguments, as a matter of principle. Instead, it has dumped that rhetoric down the memory hole. Which probably means that it never really believed the rhetoric in the first place.

In fact, when attorney general Alberto Gonzales testified on Capitol Hill yesterday, he sought to erase the past by insisting that the administration had never intended to imply that the Democrats were against all surveillance of terrorists. Democratic senator Russ Feingold asked, “Do you know of anyone in this country, Democrat or Republican, in government or on the outside, who has argued that the United States government should not wiretap suspected terrorists?…Do you know of anybody in government who has said that?” And Gonzales replied, “No.”

I refer you back to the Bush remark quoted earlier. This administration still hasn’t grasped the fact that, in the cyberspace era, whatever it asserts today can be measured against what it said yesterday.

The administration’s rhetorical U-turn brings to mind Emily Litella, the Gilda Radner character on the original Saturday Night Live: “What’s all this about Democratic appeasers?…Never mind.”

Most noteworthy, however, is the scream of pain emenating from Bush’s defenders on the right. They really did believe that rhetoric about how the critics were coddling terrorists. They repeated it on cable TV and on the blogs, arguing as well that The Times should be prosecuted for treason. And they believe it now, arguing as a matter of principle that a terrorist-fighting executive branch should be unfettered in its actions. So they basically feel today that the Bush administration has hung them out to dry.

Here’s conservative lawyer and legal analyst Mark Levin: “For the Bush administration to argue for years that this program, as operated, was critical to our national security and fell within the president's Constitutional authority, to then turn around and surrender presidential authority this way is disgraceful. The administration is repudiating all the arguments it has made in testimony, legal briefs, and public statements. This goes to the heart of the White House's credibility. How can it cast away such a fundamental position of principle and law like this?”

This goes to the heart of the White House’s credibility….Finally, an issue that the right and the left can agree on.