SCHUMER: And that is: Under the legal theory, can the government, without going to a judge — this is legal theory; I’m not asking you whether they do this — monitor private calls of its political enemies, people not associated with terrorism but people who they don’t like politically?
GONZALES: We’re not going to do that. That’s not going to happen.
SCHUMER: OK. All right. Next, different issue …
–From Senate Hearings on warrantless wiretapping, Feb 6, 2006
“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln … how was the evening?”
One more Rubicon along the journey that has transformed the USA from a first world democracy to a third world kleptoristocracy in a brief space of history. The venue was the senate judiciary committee hearing on reports of warrantless spying by the Ceaser, er…Bush administration.
Note well that the attorney general was being asked his ‘legal’ opinion, not his intentions. He did not answer that it was illegal. Instead, it was that the executive, in its infinite benevolence, was not planning to do it. That is, the government would refrain from doing something not because it was illegal, but because they chose not to.
Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said he was superior to George Washington? Washington ‘could not’ tell a lie. “I can, but I won’t”. (Gonzales too claimed George Washington’s heritage. He said the first president had opened people’s mail).
Wouldn’t you have expected every senator to jump at this point — for pandemonium to have broken out among the senators? What other questions could remain after this open revelation of the administration’s mens rea? Instead, Schumer move don. It didn’t seem to bother the other senators either. Nor was this exchange the headine in the evening news or the morning papers.
It appeared as if the Attorney General regarded the Senators like a bunch of pesky kindergarteners, somehow to be tolerated by a one-day babysitter. But that description does an injustice to children. Try shushing up a kid with, “I can’t tell you that”, in response to every second question.
Perhaps a better analogy is one of a cocky used car salesman who has already met his sales target, with “You Losers” written all over his cheerful visage, entertaining a couple where the wife is on his side. Before the toothless tiger that is the senate, Gonzales smiled often, sometimes in amusement, more often, it seemed, in pity.
The question, obvious to anyone, is quite simple. Can the government circumvent an explicit law that says the exclusive process for authorizing wiretapping was through the FISA court. Gonzales contended that they did not use the FISA court, but they had broken no law. Try that next time you are stopped by a traffic cop — “I was going the other way on a one-way street, but I didn’t break the law”. Yet, the Senate did not lay a glove on the administration.
About four years ago, on a similar appearance by then Attorney General Ashcroft before the Senate Committee, I wrote of his arrogance (Day of Infamy). It is commentary enough on our condition that the Democrats were pointing to Ashcroft, as one who had opposed warrantless wiretapping. Yesterday, Gonzales had left Ashcroft in the dust.
I was reminded of the Spanish saying, “En el pais de los ciegos, el tuerto es el rey.*” In this odd game, the pinata emerged unscathed while the players tired themselves out, hitting out half-heartedly sans conviction, sans anger.
*In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at email@example.com.