Why Do We Need the Democrats?

On Saturday, just four days after Vice President Dick Cheney shuffled out from under his rock to declare on CNN that he thought that proposals to close Guantánamo were a bad idea and that operational plans for Iraq were not the business of Congress, Democrats failed to fulfil a promise, made during the previous week, to “send members home for the August recess with fresh votes on legislation that would repudiate President Bush’s execution of the ‘global war on terror,’” remaining silent on Guantánamo and Iraq, and approving instead the President’s plans to expand his program of warrantless eavesdropping on foreign “suspects.”

As part of measures to shave just $3.5 billion off the President’s insane request for $459.6 billion for Defense appropriations (that’s less than 1 percent of a figure so colossal that it matches the cumulative defense spending of the UK, France, Germany, Japan, China, Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Spain), Representative John Murtha (D-Pa.) had indicated that he would put forward an amendment that would “require that US forces be fully trained and equipped before deploying to Iraq” (which rather begs the question of how shambolic the current process is), and another that “would close the Guantánamo prison in six months,” but in the end, faced with the prospect of losing votes and inflaming partisan tensions, he withdrew his amendments, and the bill passed by 395 votes to 13.

On CNN, tilting at common sense and the increasing sway of public opinion, the advocate of the “Dark Side” in the “War on Terror” told Larry King on Tuesday that “we don’t get into the business of sharing operational plans – we never have – with the Congress.” Cheney was speaking in defense of a former aide, Eric S. Edelman, currently an undersecretary of defense, who recently raised Democratic heckles when he replied to a request made by Senator Hillary Clinton for a briefing on withdrawal plans from Iraq by “accusing her of reinforcing ‘enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies’ by discussing a timetable for withdrawal,” although he failed to indicate whether the “we” he was referring to was a royal “we” or was meant to indicate himself and the President.

Cheney also spoke out about Guantánamo, telling King, “I think you need to have someplace to hold those individuals who have been captured during the global war on terror. I’m thinking of people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” and adding, for the benefit of those who have been on the moon for the last few years, “This is a man we captured in Pakistan. He’s the mastermind of 9/11.” Warming to his theme – and refuting figures issued by the DoD’s Office for Detainee Affairs, showing that, at most, there are only 130 detainees that the administration wants to hold onto (80 to be tried before Military Commissions, and another 50 who are “too dangerous to risk release,” but not, bizarrely, dangerous enough to be charged with any crime) – Cheney added, “There are hundreds of people like that, and if you closed Guantánamo, you’d have to find someplace else to put these folks.”

While Cheney’s opinion was backed by some of the House Representatives – with Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam of Florida joining the NIMBYist tendency I highlighted here last week, and claiming that “any US town with a prison holding a terrorist would become a potential target for attack” – Alcee L. Hastings, a Democratic Representative for Florida, and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, responded with a more measured view, pointing out that closing Guantánamo would be “an overdue way to restore the United States’ image overseas,” and explaining, “Pretty much everyone has agreed it has given America a black eye abroad.”

Hopes that something would come of all this were not only quashed on Saturday, but in addition a number of Democrat Representatives joined with the Republicans and followed the lead established in the Senate on Friday, approving, by 227 votes to 183, the President’s plans to “expand the government’s abilities to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign suspects whose communications pass through the United States.” In this stark reminder of how politicians of all hues are still swayed by the President’s bellicose, xenophobic paranoia, the cowardly Democrats (who included Dianne Feinstein in the Senate) thereby chose hollow rhetoric – Bush’s metronomic pronouncement that “Protecting America is our most solemn obligation” – over more rational fears, expressed by many of their fellow Democrats and also by civil liberties groups, that, as described by the Associated Press, the bill “goes too far, possibly enabling the government to wiretap US residents communicating with overseas parties without adequate oversight from courts or Congress,” and that it is “not limited to terror suspects and could have wider applications.”

Dissenting Democrats at least won a few concessions in negotiations earlier in the week, insisting that any proposals for new wiretaps must be approved not only by the unraveling Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, but also by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, but there was, overall, little enthusiasm for the concerns expressed by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who said during the debate that preceded the vote, “This bill would grant the attorney general the ability to wiretap anybody, any place, any time without court review, without any checks and balances. I think this unwarranted, unprecedented measure would simply eviscerate the 4th Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

Any confrontation between Democrats and the administration will now have to wait until after the summer recess, when the President’s 2008 funding for Iraq and Afghanistan will come under scrutiny, and “surges” and “timetables for withdrawal” will once more be the subject of semi-inscrutable pronouncements with too many sub-clauses.

I can hardly wait.

ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (to be published by Pluto Press in October 2007).

He can be reached at: andy@andyworthington.co.uk


ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British journalist, the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press), and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the new Guantánamo documentary, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.’ Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: andy@andyworthington.co.uk        WORDS THAT STICK ?