Friday, January 23, 2009
In college, at the apex of the Cold War, I spent a summer in the Soviet Union on an intensive Russian language study course. We had a little free time to wander around on our own, during which I met and spoke to many random Russians. Most were quite interested in talking to an American, but very hesitant to be seen doing so, especially anywhere near our hotel. In Leningrad I stopped to watch a young man working on a painting, very much against the grain of "Soviet Realism." He spoke candidly about the restrictions on artists, wishing he could be in America. Unlike everyone else I'd met, he not only accompanied me back to the hotel, but came to my room, where he continued to express his frustrations as an artist. Then he came with me to the train station, where my group was to commence a ride back to Moscow.
Once on the train, I looked out the window in time to see my new friend being escorted away forcefully, a policeman on each arm.
The Bush surveillance program, we are now told, was vastly more far-reaching than we knew: virtually every communication of every American citizen was subject to scrutiny. Especially journalists. Like the Soviet Union, but higher tech. Is that what we want? Is it necessary for our safety? Are we willing to have every email, every google search, every blog post screened by our government? Yes, or no.
From Marc Thiessen, chief speechwriter for George Bush:
"...The CIA program he is effectively shutting down is the reason why America has not been attacked again after 9/11. He has removed the tool that is singularly responsible for stopping al-Qaeda from flying planes into the Library Tower in Los Angeles, Heathrow Airport, and London’s Canary Warf, and blowing up apartment buildings in Chicago, among other plots. It’s not even the end of inauguration week, and Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office."
Strong stuff. Probably a mere whiff of what's to come. The above commentary begins by referring to an article in the WaPo, and to a paragraph within that says:
"With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the "war on terror," as President George W. Bush had defined it, signaling to the world that the reach of the U.S. government in battling its enemies will not be limitless...While Obama says he has no plans to diminish counterterrorism operations abroad, the notion that a president can circumvent long-standing U.S. laws simply by declaring war was halted by executive order in the Oval Office."
Strong stuff. The entire article is worth reading, because, unsurprisingly, there's lots more there than the parts over which the speechwriter chose to go ballistic. But the two pieces are good center-points for any discussion (assuming there can be discussion, as opposed to polemics) on the subject of surveillance, rights, and torture. I disagree with most of the former one, and at least part of the latter.
Both paragraphs mischaracterize what happened, as I understand it: Barack Obama neither suspended surveillance activity, nor declared an end to the "war on terror." He did, however, change the rules in favor of legality. Had he re-named the struggle we are in with those who wish us harm, that'd have been okay with me, too. "War on Terror" was always a misnomer at best, and at worst a means of justification for tossing centuries of law out the window.
I've said forever that intelligence-gathering, as opposed to invading Iraq, is central to keeping us safe. So has Barack Obama. In no way is he ending that. He is, however, saying it can be done within the law, and that there are reasons to do so.
I'd love to know the truth: are the so-called plots that have been uncovered (some of which are laughably lame) the result of surveillance that could have only been done without warrants? Have we in fact gotten accurate information from prisoners as a result of torture? If so, is it the case that the information could not have been otherwise obtained?
Contrary to the frothing of the speechwriter crazy guy, it seems President Obama actually plans to investigate exactly those sorts of questions. Are there techniques not covered in the Army Field Manual that have a place in our armamentarium? If so, under what circumstances. To the alarm of some, he actually wants to know the facts.
Somewhere along the line, between here and being forcibly taken out of train stations, we have some serious discussions to hold, and choices to make.