Thursday, October 09, 2008

Putting the Big in Small

This brief excerpt from Sarah Palin's speech at the RNC rather concisely encapsulates much of what is wrong with the Republican Party's approach to Constitutional protections and individual freedoms:

Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... [Obama's] worried that someone won't read them their rights? Government is too big ... he wants to grow it.

The second phrase highlights some of the internal contradictions in "small government" conservativism. First of all, the government that is deemed "too big" by Palin is the same government that was enlarged exponentially under a Republican president and a compliant Republican Congress. So the rhetoric, even in terms of fiscal discipline and budgetary matters, varies wildly from the actual policies.

Second, this statement betrays the lack of regard for individual liberties that undermines the GOP claim to the small government mantle. For the modern Republican Party, there is little fear expressed with respect to a government being too "big" when it comes to employing police state powers that encroach on rights enshrined in the Constituion (other than Second Amendment rights, to be fair). In fact, not only is the GOP mute on these matters, it is the party implementing the "big" government policies that weaken individual rights. When it comes to the GOP's views on executive authority and police powers, bigger is apparently better.

Getting back to Palin's speech, the first phrase from that excerpt reveals one of the fundamental misconceptions about the purpose and effect of Constitutional freedoms. Arguing that suspects deserve habeas corpus rights is not the same as arguing that al-Qaeda terrorists deserve habeas corpus rights (even if, in the process of granting such rights to the accused, some al-Qaeda terrorists will be granted them). The argument is that when people are accused of a crime, they deserve the basic protections of a legal system that recognizes the incontrovertible fact that sometimes innocents will be detained, and thus the accused deserve a right to an attorney, the right to know the charges being leveled against them, the right to confront witnesses, etc. You know, innocent until proven guilty. Republicans, focusing on the reprehensible nature of the criminals sought ("terrorists"), seek to usher in a legal regime that treats anyone accused of terrorism as, by virtue of that accusation alone, an actual terrorist.

Hilzoy recently discussed the case of 17 Chinese nationals that were wrongly detained at Guantanamo and are finally going to be released after a long battle through a Kafka-esque legal system implemented by the Bush administration. These Chinese prisoners were not the only innocent people that we have detained at Guantanamo, and elsewhere, who were denied basic legal protections.

This type of demagoguery in the service of curtailing liberty is not, by any logic, necessarily limited to the realm of law enforcement/executive action in response to terrorism. It is easy to imagine a determined politician introducing rights-stripping legislation under an emotionally charged title like, say, the "Child Rape and Child Murder Prevention Law." Under that law, those accused of the heinous crimes of raping and murdering children would be denied some or all of the following: habeas corpus rights, the right to an attorney, the right to confront witnesses and evidence and other protections that are currently denied "terrorists."

Think of the enormous potential for serious and irreversible injustice. Countless innocent people would be destroyed, without recourse. Yet, if and when some politicians oppose this Child Rape and Child Murder Prevention Law, the Sarah Palins and John McCains of the world could stand up and say:

Rapists and murderes still plot to savagely assault your children... [Obama's] worried that someone won't read them their rights?

And if you think my hypothetical is too fanciful, I invite you to review the recent "developments" in the area of anti-drug laws.

The same type of "presumed guilty" rationale, and commensurate demagoguery of opponents, underlies the push for warrantless wiretapping and other forms of domestic surveilance that erode our search and seizure rights. Again, as should be obvious, these programs do not infringe on the rights of terrorists alone, so when one is concerned about their impact, that is not the same thing as concern for terrorists. For example, earlier this week, we learned of this:

The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police chief acknowledged yesterday.

Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan revealed at a legislative hearing that the surveillance operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was disclosed in July.

"The names don't belong in there," he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It's as simple as that."

The surveillance took place over 14 months in 2005 and 2006, under the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The former state police superintendent who authorized the operation, Thomas E. Hutchins, defended the program in testimony yesterday. Hutchins said the program was a bulwark against potential violence and called the activists "fringe people."

Today, more news:

Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

Kinne described the contents of the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."

But we were assured that the Bush administration would only be listening to terrorists, or at least individuals for which there was a reasonable basis to suspect involvement with terrorism. Why concern yourselves with the rights of terrorists? After all, if you're not a terrorist, you have nothing to hide, right?

Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.

The spin continues:

In testimony before Congress, then-NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, said private conversations of Americans are not intercepted.

"It's not for the heck of it. We are narrowly focused and drilled on protecting the nation against al Qaeda and those organizations who are affiliated with it," Gen. Hayden testified.

The truth:

NSA awarded Adrienne Kinne a NSA Joint Service Achievement Medal in 2003 at the same time she says she was listening to hundreds of private conversations between Americans, including many from the International Red Cross and Doctors without Borders.

"We knew they were working for these aid organizations," Kinne told ABC News. "They were identified in our systems as 'belongs to the International Red Cross' and all these other organizations. And yet, instead of blocking these phone numbers we continued to collect on them," she told ABC News.

As for me, I'm just glad that our national press corps so admirably fulfilled their ethical mandate by asking the tough questions and showing an appropriate level of skepticism toward those people that ...suggested these provisions might violate our freedoms.

Bravo press corps. Bravo "small government" conservatives. Take a bow. You should be proud.

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