Jack Cafferty, CNN's resident curmudgeon, said today that Arlen Specter, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, "may be all that stands between us and full-blown dictatorship in this country." (You can watch the clip here.) Think about that for a second. We are at a point in this country's history where serious people are saying things like we're moving towards dictatorship. In this country.
I think Cafferty may be absolutely right. I know we're not there yet -- that would be an insult to all of the people who've had to endure under actual dictators, but it sure seems like we're heading in that direction, and at breakneck speed, too. (Wasn't W. talking yesterday about how great his fricking brother, Jeb, would be as a future President? What is this? A line of succession?) Cafferty's talking about, of course, the news that came out this morning that all of our friendly neighborhood telecommunications companies have been secretly giving the government access to our phone records since September 11th, 2001. By the tens of millions. Without our consent or knowledge. And to think, I used to like Verizon. (Quest, incidentally, was the only phone company to refuse the government's request). You can read the story, first reported by USAToday, here. And, as I heard on NPR's Marketplace this afternoon, the telecom companies were paid for the records, as if they were just another "commodity". Andrew Sullivan, one of the few reasonable conservative voices currently writing on-line, has a succinct rundown of Bush's pursuit of Kinghood. Polls have Bush's approval rating at 31%. My questions is who the hell are these 31%? Who's supporting this guy right now?
Bush made a statement this morning in an effort to allay fears of the Executive's growing power, and assured the American people that he's not "trolling through personal lives." That's Bush being cute by changing the subject. No, the NSA is not actually listening in on these millions of conversations, but they do now have access to when, where, and to whom a phone call is placed inside the United States -- this is domestic to domestic calling, too. So yes, Bush, you misleader you, the NSA is NOT currently trolling through John Q. Public's phone records to see if he's having an affair, or seeing prostitutes, or buying illicit drugs, but what if John Q. Public were to become John Q. Critic-of-the-Government? Like Martin Luther King, Jr. did? Or Daniel Ellsberg did? Do you think the NSA's going to be a good and upstanding secret agency when an over-zealous president, or an over-zealous Attorney General asks for information on a critic of the administration? Don't bet on it. They'll use whatever means they have at their disposal. I'm sure they've done it already. Many, many times.
Or what if by using phone records illegally procured by your government, the NSA discovers that a peaceful anti-war group has been, we'll say, a regular buyer of marijuana? Would they feel free to use that information to start an investigation? Would they make arrests? So yeah, now it's relegated to phone records, but what about when the time comes that the NSA feels it's job would be easier if it was allowed to capture and store the content of all phone calls made in the United States, not just the records? Does anyone really think this prospect is so far out of left field? Does anyone think that this President would actually say to the NSA if they came to him with this proposal, "You know boys, maybe this goes a little far. I mean, we have the Constitution to think about"? Of course not. I have no idea what this man's idealogy is, but I'm beginning to suspect he doesn't have one. If he ever did have a set of ideals he subscribed to, they've long since been set aside while his messianic vision of himself as Liberator of the Worlds' Peoples has really gone to work on his meager brain.
And this isn't just about Bush by any stretch. What about the next president to go into the White House? I fear that this administration's illegal encroachments are the new status quo. Honestly, who's going to go into the Oval Office next, Republican or Democrat, and say 'no thanks' to all the new toys Bush and his rubber-stamping Republican Congress gave the Executive? Right now, I'd say Gore is our best bet to clean house the way Carter did after Nixon given the speeches he's given on the subject of civil liberties, but even then I'm not so naive as to think Gore might not decide, once in office, that these new powers are something he'd like to keep, not legislate out of existence. This is a deadly serious debate we ought to be having right now about how far we're willing to let the government chisel away at our civil rights, but when we have reprehensible toadies like Senator Trent Lott saying in response to today's revelations, "What are people worried about? What is the problem? Are you doing something you're not supposed to?", or Bill Frist, current Majority Leader saying he "strongly agrees" with the President's decision to grab millions of Americans' phone records without court order, we are not going to have a serious and necessary debate about how far this Congress is willing to go to defend its Constitutional powers, or how averse the citizenry really is about encroaching fascism. Because right now our elected representatives are laying down.
So Specter called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales into a Senate hearing to ask him about the NSA illegal wiretapping program not long ago, but did not place him under oath. Turns out Gonzales may have taken advantage of Specter's inexplicable kindness by lying through his teeth to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Will Specter call Gonzales again, and if so, will he put him under oath this time? I doubt it. So yes, like Cafferty said, Arlen Specter may be the only thing standing between us and full-blown dictatorship, but judging from Specter's past performance (he did, after all, come up with the "Magic Bullet" theory for the Warren Commission), I'd say Specter represents, at best, a speedbump, when what we really need is a 20-foot high concrete barrier. A Democratic House in January '07 may be just the thing.