Glenn Greenwald’s background as a First Amendment attorney has enabled him to do more than almost anyone to follow the subversive efforts of the Bush Administration to twist and contort the law as it spies on the nation’s citizens. As he asserts within the title of his new book — How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok — his critique comes from the perspective of a patriot, not a partisan. Even as he exposes the deep criminality of the intent and the mafia-like discipline of partisan enablers like Alberto Gonzales and Pat Roberts, he does not shy away from criticizing Democrats like Jane Harmon who, in her position on the House Intelligence Committee, has attempted to legalize the President’s wanton disregard for the rule of law rather than call him to account. It may be a GOP-led effort, but they did not pull it off without an awful lot of help.
In reviewing the book, Lex Alexander at the Greensboro News-Record has this to say:
Greenwald has aimed his book at all Americans, not just liberals or conservatives, for he believes the overarching constitutional issues raised by many of the president’s actions are not partisan but, rather, go to the heart of what it means to be an American. In light of the big picture this book so clearly describes and so strongly documents, it stands out among the many recent books attacking the Bush presidency and deserves the widest possible audience.
Glenn begins his tale as a personal journey, told from the perspective of a not-overtly-political individual who felt there were enough checks and balances in the system to keep the government from doing much harm. I think it was the way many felt during the Clinton years; things may not be going swimmingly but the economy was healthy and the adults were in charge. We often felt we had the luxury of worrying about other things.
That luxury no longer exists. George Bush now regularly asserts his right to ignore any law he choses, and as Christy mentioned this morning, Dick Cheney and David Addington have busied themselves recently with going through legislation to find other laws to ignore via signing statements. We have an administration that has set up a limitless network to spy on terrorists, who openly count anyone that doesn’t agree with them as "terrorists" and "traitors." Who have thrown out the writ of Habeus Corpus and hold people indefinitely without charging them, who proudly assert their right to torture, all in their pursuit of a "war on terror." Glenn’s book rightly asks — given the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, what would a patriot do?
One of the problems with following a complex situation like this over time is that details get dropped from memory, or never find their way into appropriate context. Glenn does an incredible job of corralling them all together into a tight, burning narrative that makes you want to go knock on your neighbor’s door, sit down over coffee and explain the whole thing to them.
Glenn begins in the 50’s when Harry Truman created the NSA, but the story starts to pick up speed in the 60s when the government began listening in on the telephone conversations of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Hoffa and Jerry Rubin — and according to Time Magazine, US Senators in both parties felt their phone conversations were subject to bugging. After Richard Nixon turned wiretapping into an art form, it lead to the formation of the Church Committee which issued its report in 1976.
Even back in 1975, when the NSA’s surveillance capabilities were primitive compared to today, Sen. Church was stunned by what he learned regarding the breadth and scope of the NSA’s powers. As The New York Times recently recounted: "’That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people,’ [Church] said in 1975, ‘and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.’ He added that if a dictator ever took over, the NSA ‘could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.‘" (p. 16 — my emphasis)
But as Glenn points out, at the time these activities were not strictly illegal. Public concern on this front, generated by both liberals and conservatives, lead to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, signed into law by Jimy Carter, which provided judicial oversight to wiretapping activities in order to limit abuses (and as Glenn notes, such abuses were not the domain of either party — Nixon merely picked up where Johnson left off).
It’s no surprise that the Bush Administration has taken a wrecking ball to the FISA courts. As Glenn notes:
Prior to the December, 2005 disclosure that President Bush violated the law, nobody had ever suggested that the FISA framework impeded necessary eavesdropping. If anything, the FISA court has long been criticized by liberals, conservatives, libertarians and everyone in between for being too permissive, for allowing the government whatever eavesdropping powers it requested. Indeed, its reputation for granting every eavesdropping request made by the government is so widespread that it has long been ridiculed as the "Rubber-Stamp court."
Relevant statistics more than support those criticisms. According to statistics compiled by the Federation of American Scientists, from 19178 until 2001 — the year President Bush ordered eavesdropping outside of the law — the government submitted a total of 13,102 requests to the FISA court to eavesdrop on Americans. The FISA court approved every single request and only modified the requested warrant on a grand total of two occasions.
Nevertheless, the FISA court still performed an extremely important function — it ensured that Presidents were not eavesdropping in secret on Americans, but instead, always with the knowledge of at least one federal judge on the FISA court. And when a President knows that any eavesdropping he orders will be known to a FISA judge, the opportunity for abuse is, for obvious reasons, greatl diminished, if not entirely eliminated. That is how and why the severe eavesdropping abuses of the 1960s and 1970s essentially disappeared once FISA was enacted. Presidents were still able to engage in legitimate eavesdropping as aggressively and potently as ever before, but their potential to abuse this power was greatly diminished by oversight.
FISA worked exceptionally well under multiple administrations of each party. It worked all the way until October 2001, when President Bush quietly decided to order the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans in violation of FISA. (p. 25-26, my emphasis)
Those four paragraphs say more to me about the way the Bush Administration operates than almost anything I’ve read. Generations of wisdom and careful legislation, enacted on a bipartisan level to assure appropriate checks in the system and observed by Presidents of both parties, swept away by a ruthless tyrant with respect for nothing and whose arrogance is only outstripped by his insatiable appetite for absolute power.
One of the things that makes this book so remarkable is its timeliness; it was written in a mere 6 weeks and quickly published in order to be available for people trying to wrestle with the complexities of this imminent crisis. Give it to your friends, your family, your co-workers, buy a copy for your local library, write your local newspaper and demand it be reviewed (despite its remarkable climb to #1 on Amazon on the first day of its pre-sales, relatively few major media outlets have reviewed it — you can be sure that no such fate will befall Ann Coulter’s next magnum opus.)
It’s an extremely important book sure to awaken the true patriotic impulses of every American still capable of feeling them, and Lex Alexander is right in saying that it deserves "the widest possible audience." It most certainly does.