Sunday, February 19, 2006

Will We Always Be At War?

A few weeks ago, during the NSA press conference, the President promised that he would fight any attempts to disclose more details about the NSA wiretapping program. He said to do so would aid the terrorists which proves, as we've suspected, that there is more to this program than we know. He claims that to reveal more information would only aid our enemies, but cynics point out that it also makes it harder to question the legality, scope and necessity of the program.

The President keeps reminding us that we are in a war. I'm about the same age as the President and I have seen several wars come and go.

The Korean War (Actually, for political reasons, it was called a police action.)
The Cold War
The Vietnam War
The War on Drugs
The War on Poverty
The War in the Balkans
The First Gulf War
The War in Afghanistan
The War in Iraq

I believe in this time frame we also had wars on cancer and the gypsy moth and a few others. I'm not trying to belittle the serious threat of Islamic terrorism, but war is a term that we use quite loosely to describe a condition where we will use our full resources to "win". While you might not put the war on terrorism in the same category as the war on poverty or drugs, you could make a case that the Cold War posed a much more serious threat to this country than Islamic terrorism. The President justifies any action that he wants to take on the fact that we are in a war. At his news conference he vowed to keep renewing his authorization of NSA wiretapping until the threat of terrorism is removed. Implicit in this statement was the assertion, "and I don't care what you think about it".

Does he ever listen to his own speechs? He has already told us that the war on terror will take a long time to win. Does he believe there is any possibility we can win the war on terrorism before his term expires? Does he even have an estimate of when the war on terrorism might be won? 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? How will we even know when we've won? Common sense tells us that as long as there are people who are willing to die for their cause there will be terrorism. Terrorism evolves. New groups with grievances will emerge and terrorism is an efficient way for the less powerful to influence the powerful. So even if we destroy al Qaida tomorrow, it is reasonable that some other group will take its place demanding the attention of the world with outrageous acts. The very threat that a group might evolve into another al Qaida will be enough to justify a continued war on terrorism.

The President has said something like, "We have to get it right all the time, the terrorists only have to succeed once." I can understand the logic, but this kind of reasoning will always lead presidents to interpret laws and civil liberties in a way that gives them the most flexibility to do whatever they feel is necessary. As President Bush has shown, presidents are more afraid of being wrong once than on worrying too much about legalities. From a president's point of view, the prudent course is to secretly bend the rules. As the NSA wiretapping issue has shown, if your actions are discovered and your authority is questioned you argue that what you are doing is legal under your expanded war powers. Even if it is not legal, it is essential to national security. Either way, those arguments are easier to defend than trying to explain why some city was blown up on your watch. I can understand why presidents would think this way, but these are false choices and it is the responsibility of congress, the courts, the press and all citizens to make sure the executive branch does not lose perspective. There are fates worse than death. There are more serious threats to the nation than terrorist attacks. I can imagine a devastating attack in the US, but to ignore the constitution to prevent an attack is like making a pact with the devil. Somewhere along the line the devil will need to be paid.

I think you can argue that terrorism will be a popular tool for the foreseeable future. Even if we cleaned up all the loose nuclear material (which we are not working hard enough to accomplish), terrorists will turn to biological and chemical weapons (which as technology improves will probably be easier to create and deliver than nuclear bombs). The genie is out of the bottle; from here on we will face attacks by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. Does that mean we will forever be on a war footing where a president can place himself above the law by invoking his duty to protect us? Presidents of any party will try. We give them every reason to feel that the fate of the country rests, in the end, on them and them alone. Given that charge it is reasonable to expect that they will use every resource at their disposal to do what they feel is necessary. And while their oath to the constitution should keep their actions within the law, the consequences of a mistake and the glaucoma of power make the dark side almost irresistible. That is why we have checks and balances. That is why we have to ask questions that, to some, may look unpatriotic.

You may believe President Bush to be true of heart and a pillar of virtue. You may accept that whatever the President does, he does with the sole intention of saving lives and protecting the nation. But what if, heaven forbid, a Democrat were elected at sometime in the future and claimed these same powers. Would you be comfortable allowing that president to authorize questionable actions in the name of the war on (fill in the current group) terrorism? Keep in mind that technology to spy on us is constantly improving. How long will it be before the NSA has the capacity to monitor EVERY phone call or email in this country? How large must an attack or a threat be before the use of such technology is rationalized? They may even be able to do that now; how would we know?

I'm not suggesting that we don't try to intercept communications between terrorists. I'm not suggesting that we stop the NSA wiretapping program. I am suggesting that this NSA program exposes the administration's belief that immediate threats are more important than laws, civil liberties and the constitution. I am asserting that "war" does not mean that the checks and balances provided by the legislative and judicial branches are diminished. If the NSA wire tapping is as legal and necessary as the administration claims, they need to prove it to Congress and the courts.

The President and his administration claim that since we are in a war, they have additional power and authority. They claim that some of our constitutional checks and balances don't apply during a war. If the President wants to claim extra powers because we are in a war, I would like to hear how we will know we are no longer in a war. The President keeps telling us this is a new kind of war. OK, how about a new definition of how we will know we have won. Without some definition of how we will know the war on terrorism is over we have basically changed the constitution, probably forever. Aren't you concerned about that?

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