Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

There are two separate dangers from unrestrained government surveillance of private lives. One is deliberate, purposive abuse of power, when the government twists the data it has collected in order to damage people targeted because of their opposition to government policy. It is not behavior all citizens would put past the Bush administration. But probably the greater danger to citizens from government snooping is what Monica Collins in the Boston Globe called "collateral damage" from intelligence gathering. This happens when some automatic trigger set to analyze huge collections of data points a finger at a particular person. Then the bureaucracy is launched into action. The name is spread among a variety of agencies. Each decides what steps it should take. For reasons that can make no sense at all, and are often the result of simple laziness, people's names get put onto lists, or their telephones get tapped, or they get related to the names of people they have never met, or they get scheduled for a visit by the FBI. As a consequence, a file begins to build and simply because of its size becomes significant in the minds of certain psychological types who have managed to get themselves appointed defenders of national security.  The result can be almost anything. Certainly, imprisonment becomes a possibility. And once something punitive has been done, it becomes a matter of self-interest for the security folk to justify the punishment. After all, they don't want to be seen as having abused perfectly innocent people. It's the old story: once you get into the system it becomes very hard to get out, regardless of whether anything you did justified your being put there. The Washington Post, in its consistently bland language, described the process this way: "The larger lesson is that domestic intelligence operations by security-conscious government agencies, even when necessary and well-intentioned, can easily get out of hand and violate the fundamental rights of Americans." So even if you think the president of the United States is the sweetest, nicest, most friendly guy in the world, there are reasons why you should be worried about his minions listening to everything you say on the telephone or copying all your e-mail messages.

It's not often that political satire manages to be genuinely funny, but David Atkins managed to pull it off with his column in the Washington Post titled, "The Truth According to Me." It's in the form of a letter from President Bush commenting on the problems occasioned by the State of the Union address. The president calls our attention to inevitable copy-editing errors, such as Mr. Gonzales's statement that no person is above the law when it should have been "One person is above the law." Also, he forthrightly admits a mistake in saying that Dick Cheney was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That came about because he thought he saw on the vice-president's calendar a notation about going to Oslo. But the part I liked best was when the president dipped into postmodern literary criticism and remarked, "The experience of responding to this unprecedented attention has been trying. But it has also taught me that the strict rules of nonfiction can get in the way of telling a story that conveys a larger 'emotional truth.' I encourage my fans to look for my forthcoming novel, 'Victory in Iraq.'" Satire, of course, can be funny only when it edges up close to the truth, and this item edges pretty close indeed.

There continues to be a drumbeat in the press and on the internet to the effect that the president of the United States is incompetent and doesn't know what he's doing. For example, a couple months ago, Foreign Policy in Focus, a think tank critical of American foreign policy, said this about Mr. Bush's program for Iraq: "Vowing to 'Stay the Course' the President made clear that the administration still doesn't recognize the main factor in the war - that the occupation is driving the resistance." But what if the president and his advisors do recognize what the main factor is and embrace it for that very reason? After all, one would have to be monstrously dimwitted not to see that a principal reason for the violence in Iraq is hostility to the American occupation. How can we be sure that the Bush administration is that intellectually challenged? Isn't it more likely that they're not, and that they know exactly what the effects of their action in Iraq will continue to be? Ask yourself this: why would the president want Iraq to become a peaceful country? Wouldn't that undercut most of what he's been saying? And wouldn't it reduce his standing as a "war president" whose principal claim all along has been that he will wage war more vigorously than his opponents would? Of course, there will be a little grumbling that he's not "winning" fast enough. But that can be combatted by emphasizing, as Mr. Bush did in the State of the Union, the terrific evil of the enemy, thus supporting his stance that the war must be prosecuted ever more aggressively. Those who base their analysis of the current national situation on the president's lack of understanding may well be on very shaky ground.

The Pentagon has got into a big fuss with the Washington Post. The joint chiefs of staff don't like a cartoon by Tom Toles, which showed defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld standing over an armless, legless soldier, saying "I'm listing your condition as battle hardened." This, say the generals, makes light of the troops' sacrifices. Toles obviously was satirizing Rumsfeld's response to a report which said the army was over-stretched in Iraq. It's funny how some people assess concern for sacrifice. To send young men and women off to a country that never did anything to us, to get their arms, legs and heads blown off, is not treating sacrifice lightly. But making a critical point about about one of the men who did it, is. All the crocodile tears in the world aren't going to change the truth that Tom Toles didn't use soldiers as cannon fodder in support of a highly dubious political theory. Other people did that, people whom the generals have not yet summoned the courage to denounce.

The press has been lackadaisical in investigating President's Bush's claim that the NSA has intercepted only calls to and from suspected al Qaeda operatives. The key question with respect to the president's assertion is whether it's technically possible. One would think that if security officials know who the al Qaeda operatives are, their names would already be on warrants authorizing investigation of anything they do. The only way the NSA searches could work would be for thousands of telephone transmissions and e-mails to be intercepted and then scanned to see if anything in them sounds suspicious. And that, indeed, is what an NSA official is reported as having said. "In reality, we're monitoring all phone calls, all e-mails, all forms of electronic communications. We listen to everyone in hopes of picking up a certain word or phrase." So, which is it? Just a few communications, as the president implies? Or all the calls and e-mails that come into the United States or go out to other nations? If the members of the House and Senate can't find that out, they're impotent in protecting rights under the Constitution. They may as well close down Congress, go home, and hope the president doesn't come after them.

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