Saturday, March 24, 2007

Gagging democracy

"Fly paper" and other wingnut arguments aside, the invasion of Iraq was the ultimate victory that Osama bin Laden sought -- drawing the United States into an unwinnable and long-lasting war in the Middle East. The initial success of Rumsfeld's quick strke in Afghanistan made it appear that bin Laden had seriously miscalculated, but then George W. Bush and his neoconservative visionaries launched us into an occupation of a huge, unstable, and hostile Arab country, and bin Laden's dream has come true...probably beyond his wildest dreams.

But in the long run, al Qaeda's first and most significant victory -- the one that will have the most impact on our nation for many years to come -- came true long before we invaded either Afghanistan or Iraq. It was -- and is -- called The Patriot Act (via TPM).

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.

The inspector general's report makes clear that NSL gag orders have had even more pernicious effects. Without the gag orders issued on recipients of the letters, it is doubtful that the FBI would have been able to abuse the NSL power the way that it did. Some recipients would have spoken out about perceived abuses, and the FBI's actions would have been subject to some degree of public scrutiny. To be sure, not all recipients would have spoken out; the inspector general's report suggests that large telecom companies have been all too willing to share sensitive data with the agency -- in at least one case, a telecom company gave the FBI even more information than it asked for. But some recipients would have called attention to abuses, and some abuse would have been deterred.

I found it particularly difficult to be silent about my concerns while Congress was debating the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2005 and early 2006. If I hadn't been under a gag order, I would have contacted members of Congress to discuss my experiences and to advocate changes in the law. The inspector general's report confirms that Congress lacked a complete picture of the problem during a critical time: Even though the NSL statute requires the director of the FBI to fully inform members of the House and Senate about all requests issued under the statute, the FBI significantly underrepresented the number of NSL requests in 2003, 2004 and 2005, according to the report.

I recognize that there may sometimes be a need for secrecy in certain national security investigations. But I've now been under a broad gag order for three years, and other NSL recipients have been silenced for even longer. At some point -- a point we passed long ago -- the secrecy itself becomes a threat to our democracy. In the wake of the recent revelations, I believe more strongly than ever that the secrecy surrounding the government's use of the national security letters power is unwarranted and dangerous. I hope that Congress will at last recognize the same thing.

And in a "Of course," blow to the head realization: The prosecutor purge and the insertion of a little-noticed of a new provision in The Patriot Act went hand-in-hand.

We'll eventually cut our losses in Iraq and leave. I suspect, in fact, that what outrages Bush and Rove most about the House emergency appropriations bill that insists on a date for a pull-out, is that the date is the same one they had planned on to declare victory and start pulling out -- that is, just about in time for it to make a difference in November 2008. And Afghanistan we gave up on years ago. Our reputation in the world has suffered, but it can be fixed. But The Patriot Act is here to stay.


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