Democracies Die Behind Closed Doors

THE action today is the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the NSA spy program. For live-blogging and breaking updates, see Glenn Greenwald and ReddHedd at firedoglake.

I have only a brief window of blogging time until later today, but I do want to call your attention to today’s Bob Herbert column, which you can read online at True Blue Liberal.

The big problem related to this program, as far as the administration is concerned, is not its metastasizing threat to constitutional government, the rule of law, the privacy of innocent Americans, the venerable system of checks and balances, and the American way of life as we’ve known it.

No, the big problem for Bush & Co. — the thing that makes the president and his apologists apoplectic — is the mere fact that this domestic spying program has come to light. Investigations are under way to determine who might have leaked information about the supersecret program to The New York Times, which disclosed its existence, and others.

This is not a time for Congress or the media to bow before the intimidation tactics of a bullying administration. This is a time to heed the words of a federal judge named Damon Keith, who reminded us back in 2002 that “democracies die behind closed doors.”

Later in this very excellent column that you should read all the way through, Herbert says,

The president would have you believe that the warrantless N.S.A. spy program is a very limited operation, narrowly focused on international communications involving “people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations.”

If that were true, there would be no reason not to get a warrant from the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The most logical reason for not getting a warrant is that the president’s intelligence acolytes, who behave as though they graduated from the Laurel and Hardy school of data mining, have not been able to demonstrate that the people being spied upon are connected to Al Qaeda or any other terror organization.

Herbert goes on to remind us that the volume of data dumped on the FBI for follow-up was worse than worthless. It wasted time that might have been used in actual investigation of terrorists.

David Stout at the New York Times describes the testimony of Attorney General Gonzales, who was allowed to testify without being under oath:

The panel’s chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said federal law prohibits “any electronic surveillance without a court order.”

And Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s ranking Democrat and, like Mr. Specter, a former prosecutor, said Mr. Gonzales’s assertions were not supported by history.

“Congress has given the president authority to monitor Al Qaeda messages legally, with checks to guard against abuses when Americans’ conversations and e-mails are being monitored,” Mr. Leahy said. “But instead of doing what the president has the authority to do legally, he’s decided to do it illegally, without safeguards.”

… “Mr. Attorney General,” Senator Leahy said at one point, “I’m getting the impression this administration picks and chooses what it’s subject to.”