Vol. 18, No. 25 Dec. 29, 2005 - Jan. 11, 2006



Bush’s Slippery Slope
Much of the time, democracy can run on autopilot without much more than cursory direction from the citizenry. The checks and balances of the three branches of government and annual trips to the polls are sufficient to prevent tyranny.

But then there are times when citizens must not just rely on the judgment of its elected representatives and wait until the next election comes around.

This may be one of those times.

President Bush’s brazen and unapologetic use of the super-secret National Security Agency, designed to spy on foreigners only, to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant is alarming for several reasons.

The president has bypassed the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court, which was set up in the 1970s to grant law enforcement authorities expeditious hearings on warrant requests (permission to listen in on an American citizen's phone conversations). The court has only denied four warrant applications among the thousands that have been requested between 1979 and 2004. And by all accounts, the court works very quickly in just the manner it was designed.

So, why does the president think it’s necessary to make an end-run around the FISA Court? One can only suspect that he knew that even this court, which has obviously been inclined to give the executive branch the benefit of the doubt on these matters, would have considered the administration’s requests in these instances unreasonable.

And that is, of course, why we have a judiciary. If presidents think they can bypass it when they think rulings won’t go in their favor, then the judicial branch is seriously weakened, as is our form of government.

The Bush administration is spying on American citizens without permission from the judiciary. This is clearly against the law, but Bush has incredibly claimed that there are powers inherent in the presidency that permit him to act above the law.

We do not live in a dictatorship, but this is little solace. Societies rarely, if ever, become dictatorships overnight. It is the slow, sometimes imperceptible erosion of basic rights (like the right to have a conversation without the government listening in) that chokes off democracy’s civic oxygen and creates an atmosphere in which despots can thrive.

In other words, just because we are a democracy does not mean we will always be one.

President Bush’s brash defense of his actions and his vows to keep violating the law is also troublesome. It is a challenge to Congress and the citizens it represents to call his bluff. As Jonathan Schell wrote recently in The Nation, if his actions are not challenged, then that non-action essentially ratifies the president's claims that there are inherent powers in the presidency not rooted in law.

The so-called War on Terror has caused this government to enact some controversial laws that reasonable people can disagree about. But they are least law, vetted by 535 members of Congress.

The war does not permit anyone to act above U.S. law, least of all the president, who should model the democracy he represents.

Read as much as you can about this issue. Talk to your neighbors, friends and co-workers. Write your members of Congress and senators. It’s time we all started steering the ship of state.


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