International Herald Tribune Editorial - The fear of fear itself
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: August 7, 2007
It was appalling to watch over the last few days as Congress - now led by Democrats - caved in to yet another dangerous expansion of President George W. Bush's powers, this time to spy on Americans in violation of basic constitutional rights. Many of the 16 Democrats in the Senate and 41 in the House who voted for the bill said that they had acted in the name of national security, but the only security at play was their job security.
There was plenty of bad behavior. Republicans marched in mindless lockstep with the president. There was double-dealing by the White House. The director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, crossed the line from being a steward of U.S. security to acting as a White House political operative.
But mostly, the spectacle left us wondering what the Democrats - especially their feckless Senate leaders - plan to do with their majority in Congress if they are too scared of Republican campaign ads to use it to restrain an out-of-control president.
The votes in the House and Senate were supposed to fix a genuine glitch in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the government to obtain a warrant before eavesdropping on electronic communications that involve someone in the United States.
The court charged with enforcing that law said the government must also seek a warrant if the people are outside the United States, but their communications are routed through data exchanges in the country - a technological problem that did not exist in 1978.
Instead of just fixing that glitch, the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill railroaded Congress into voting a vast expansion of the president's powers. They gave the director of national intelligence and the attorney general authority to intercept - without warrant, court supervision or accountability - any telephone call or e-mail message that moves in, out of or through the United States as long as there is a "reasonable belief" that one party is not in the United States. The new law all but eviscerates the 1978 law. The only small saving grace is that the new statute expires in six months.
The House handled this mess somewhat better than the Senate, moving to the floor a far more sensible bill. McConnell certified that the House bill would address the problem raised by the court. That is, until the White House made clear that it wanted to use the court's ruling to grab a lot more power. McConnell then reversed his position and demanded that Congress pass the far more expansive bill.
In the Senate, the team of Harry Reid, the majority leader, gave up fast, agreeing to a deal that doomed any good bill. The senators then approved the White House bill, dumped it on the House and skulked off on vacation. Representative Rahm Emanuel, the fourth-ranking member of the Democratic House leadership, said Monday that his party would not wait for the new eavesdropping authority to expire, and would have a new, measured bill on the floor by October. We look forward to reading it.
But the problem with Congress last week was that the Democrats allowed Bush and his fear-mongering to dominate all discussions on terrorism and national security.
Bush claims that he has kept America safe since 9/11. But that claim ignores the country's vulnerabilities. Six years after the 9/11 attacks the administration has still failed to secure ports, railroads and airports from terrorist attack.
Bush's fear-mongering has had one notable success. The only issue on which Americans say that they trust Republicans more than Democrats is terrorism. At least those Americans are afraid of terrorists. The Democrats who voted for this bill show only fear of Republicans.
The Democratic majority has made strides on other issues like children's health insurance against White House opposition. As important as these measures are, they do not excuse the Democrats from remedying the damage Bush has done to civil liberties. That is their most important duty.