The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Thirty-five years
ago, Richard Milhous Nixon, who was crazy as a bullbat, and J. Edgar Hoover,
who wore women's underwear, decided some Americans had unacceptable political
opinions. So they set our government to spying on its own citizens, basically
those who were deemed insufficiently like Crazy Richard Milhous.
For those of you who have forgotten just what a stonewall paranoid
Nixon was, the poor man used to stalk around the White House demanding that
his political enemies be killed. Many still believe there was a certain Richard
III grandeur to Nixon's collapse because he was also a man of notable talents.
There is neither grandeur nor tragedy in watching this president, the Testy
Kid, violate his oath to uphold the laws and Constitution of our country.
The Testy Kid wants to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it
because he is the president, and he considers that sufficient justification
for whatever he wants. He even finds lawyers like John Yoo, who tell him that
whatever he wants to do is legal.
The creepy part is the overlap. Damned if they aren't still here, after all
these years, the old Nixon hands -- Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the whole
gang whose yearning for authoritarian government rose like a stink over the
Nixon years. Imperial executive. Bring back those special White House guard
uniforms. Cheney, like some malignancy that cannot be killed off, back at the
same old stand, pushing the same old crap. Of course, they tell us we have to
be spied on for our own safety, so they can catch the terrorists who threaten
us all. Thirty-five years ago, they nabbed a film star named Jean Seberg and
a bunch of people running a free breakfast program for poor kids in Chicago.
This time, they're onto the Quakers. We are not safer.
We would be safer, as the 9-11 commission has so recently reminded us, if some
obvious and necessary precautions were taken at both nuclear and chemical plants
-- but that is not happening because those industries contribute to Republican
candidates. Republicans do not ask their contributors to spend a lot of money
on obvious and necessary steps to protect public safety. They wiretap, instead.
You will be unsurprised to learn that, first, they lied. They didn't do it.
Well, OK, they did it, but not very much at all. Well, OK, more than that. A
lot more than that. OK, millions of private e-mail and telephone calls every
hour, and all medical and financial records.
You may recall in 2002 it was revealed that the Pentagon had started a giant
data-mining program called Total Information Awareness (TIA), intended to search
through vast databases "to increase information coverage by an order of
From credit cards to vet reports, Big Brother would be watching us. This dandy
program was under the control of Adm. John Poindexter, convicted of five felonies
during Iran-Contra, all overturned on a technicality. This administration really
knows where to go for good help -- it ought to bring back Brownie.
Everybody decided that TIA was a terrible idea, and the program was theoretically
shut down. As often happens with this administration, it turned out they just
changed the name and made the program less visible. Data-mining was a popular
buzzword at the time, and the administration was obviously hot to have it. Bush
established a secret program under which the National Security Agency could
bypass the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court and begin eavesdropping
on Americans without warrants.
As many have patiently pointed out, the entire program was unnecessary, since
the FISA court is both prompt and accommodating. There is virtually no possible
scenario that would make it difficult or impossible to get a FISA warrant --
it has granted 19,000 warrants and rejected only a handful.
I don't like to play scary games where we all stay awake late at night, telling
each other scary stories -- but there's a reason we have never given our government
this kind of power. As the late Sen. Frank Church said, "That capability
could at any time be turned around on the American people, and no American would
have any privacy left, such is the capacity to monitor everything: telephone
conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."
And if a dictator took over, the NSA "could enable it to impose total
tyranny." Then we always get that dreadful goody-two-shoes response, "Well,
if you aren't doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about,
Folks, we KNOW this program is being and will be misused. We know it from the
past record and current reporting. The program has already targeted vegans and
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- and, boy, if those aren't outposts
of al-Qaida, what is? Could this be more pathetic?
This could scarcely be clearer. Either the president of the United States is
going to have to understand and admit he has done something very wrong, or he
will have to be impeached. The first time this happened, the institutional response
was magnificent. The courts, the press, the Congress all functioned superbly.
Anyone think we're up to that again? Then whom do we blame when we lose the
Molly Ivins writes about politics, Texas and other bizarre