Perhaps the greatest single consistency of the Bush presidency has been its contempt for legal process. Given the choice between following prescribed legal steps in carrying out policy or flouting them, Bush & Co. will almost always choose the latter. So habitual is this contempt of law, it’s hard anymore to chalk it up to pragmatic motivations, like, for example, a cop who lies about a supposed “confidential informant” to justify searching the house of a bad guy.
No, there’s something more at work here.
Take the administration’s insistence on conducting wiretaps without court approval. It isn’t as though the requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) present some horrendous burden to the government. FISA judges have approved almost all requests for national security wiretaps; and, in any case, the terms of the Act allowed surveillance to begin even without court approval, subject only to a far from oppressive requirement that the government obtain retroactive court approval within 72 hours.
Still, the Bush Administration refused to be bothered.
No, this isn’t about expediency; it’s about contempt for the rule of law — together with an arrogant insistence upon completely unfettered executive power.
It’s been a long and ugly parade, going back to the start of the administration, but especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, an event Bush seems to believe transformed him into a de facto dictator, with complete freedom to ignore not just enactments of Congress, but the United States Constitution itself: Military tribunals created by executive fiat, foreign nationals seized and held in secret, American citizens imprisoned in military brigs as “enemy combatants,” attorney-client confidentiality breached without court order; widespread warrantless surveillance, resistance to all congressional oversight, use of “rough interrogation” methods otherwise known as torture, issuing presidential “signing statements” purporting to exempt the president from the law of the land and on and on and on.
And now, of course, there’s also this:
(The New York Times) Bank Data Is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror
WASHINGTON, June 22 — Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.
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The program, however, is a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans’ financial records. Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift.
That access to large amounts of confidential data was highly unusual, several officials said, and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues.
“The capability here is awesome or, depending on where you’re sitting, troubling,” said one former senior counterterrorism official who considers the program valuable. While tight controls are in place, the official added, “the potential for abuse is enormous.”
Welcome to George W. Bush’s America, where we no longer have a “government of laws and not men,” but increasingly a government of just one man (with a little help from his friends).
We have to ask ourselves what this says about our democracy. The rule of law, after all, is the life blood of any democratic system - what separates true democracies, like the United States (at least until recently), from fraudulent ones, like the old Soviet Union. The right to vote isn’t ultimately the point: It’s the right to have that vote translated into controlling law that gives the process meaning. When a president claims the privilege to simply make up the rules as he goes along, without regard to either the acts of Congress or individual liberties protected in the constitution, this meaning evaporates.
James Madison always worried that the Bill of Rights would become a mere “parchment barrier,” with little practical power to protect individual freedoms. Bush seems to agree with him.
It’s just that unlike Madison, who viewed this as a threat, Bush seems to see it as an opportunity.