Constitution / Domestic Spying

Bush’s Banana Republicanism

Bush’s Banana Republicanism
May 19, 2006

An apt summary of President Bush’s justification for the NSA domestic spying program is that “our sovereignty may be dependent on our ability to eavesdrop on transmissions between our enemies on the outside and those on the inside with sympathies for them. I trust my ability to determine who to mark for examination and so will you.”  What is telling is that those words were not uttered by President Bush, but by Saddam Hussein.

While Hussein drew a distinction between international and domestic calls, the Bush administration’s NSA program seeks “to create a database of every call ever made” within the country. We now know that the program has been used to monitor domestic communications between government employees and the media, plus former NSA director and CIA director nominee General Michael Hayden has refused to answer questions whether it also has been used to monitor Bush’s political enemies, although the FBI has been used to monitor anti-war groups.

The NSA program, however, must be viewed in the larger context of Bush’s constitutional record, which according to a recent report by the conservative CATO Institute, is “overwhelmingly one of contempt for constitutional limits.” The CATO report blasts the Bush administration for infringing upon free speech by arresting protesters who refuse to move to remote “free speech zones” out of sight from the president; ignoring prohibitions on the use of torture; and violating the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause by imprisoning people indefinitely based on suspicion alone, eavesdropping on telephone communications without a warrant and indefinitely detaining anyone he declares to be an enemy combatant. The report is especially critical of Bush’s view “that, in time of war, the president is the law, and no treaty, no statute; no … branch of … government can stand in the president’s way.”

That report came after a Boston Globe analysis of the many signing statements issued by the White House in conjunction with newly enacted legislation finding that the president had reserved the right to “disobey more than 750 laws enacted” during his administration to the extent that it conflicts with his expansive and questionable interpretation of the Constitution. Bush has issued those statements for more than 10 percent of the bills signed and, for example, has claimed the right to ignore prohibitions on the use of torture, obligations to report to Congress on the use of the Patriot Act or wiretapping operations, whistle-blower protections and affirmative action requirements.  In essence, Bush is using the statements as a de facto line item veto allowing him to impermissibly pick and choose which parts of the new law he will follow. That led Senate Judiciary Chairman Alan Specter to comment that there “may as well soon not be a Congress.”

In addition, a 2003 U.S. News & World Report investigation concluded that the “Bush administration has quietly dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government — cloakingits own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety and environmental matters.”  District Judge Damon Keith addressed the danger of such secrecy in reversing the administration’s attempt to hold deportation hearings in secret by stressing that “democracies die behind closed doors.”

Liberty is rarely stolen by stealth, but rather is lost through a series of small steps acquiesced in by an unwitting and passive public. Those three reports sound the alarm that this is happening today as the Bush Administration slowly inches towards the type of unchecked power found in banana republics. This is not a partisan attack since Republicans such as Congressman Ron Paul and former Congressman Bob Barr have each warned that the nation is slipping towards a dictatorship. Fortunately, the public is beginning to catch on as a small majority now opposes the NSA program.

With Memorial Day approaching, it is worth remembering that over the course of our history nearly 2 million Americans have been killed or wounded to liberate us from a monarchy, protect and defend our Constitution and promote freedom. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, we honor them by “tak(ing) increased devotion to that cause for which” they sacrificed.

Today, the battlefield is not at Lexington, Gettysburg, Okinawa or Baghdad but all around us and our weapons are our pen, our voice and our vote. It is up to us to demonstrate our increased devotion by fighting this creeping Banana Republicanism and demanding a government that respects our rights and is accountable to the people. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “(I)n any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”