Thursday, June 01, 2006

Book Review: How Would A Patriot Act?

Often linked to from this web log, Glenn Greenwald's book How Would A Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok is the short recap of the more recent revelations of government surveillance and secrecy in terms of wiretaps and executive power.

Greenwald is a Constitutional attorney in Manhattan. His politics had been worn far away from his sleeve before the terrorist hijackings on September 11, 2001. After this moment, he found himself in favor of an attack against Afghanistan. When the Administration pushed for a war in Iraq against a country that had not attacked us in 2001, his views began to turn away from support of the President and towards a more skeptical view of his policies and practices.

Then came the eavesdropping on phone calls. Americans participating in calls from or to foreign countries were being listened to without the Administration first obtaining a warrant. The explanation given by President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was that these were only calls from known numbers that were linked to terrorist organizations.

In December 2005, the New York Times disclosed that there was a secret program in which the Administration went around the FISA courts in order to eavesdrop on telephone calls. There is still relatively little known about the program other than an acknowledgement of its existence by the President after the story was reported. Congress was notified of its existence if one may conclude that if the leadership of each house was notified and sworn to secrecy then Congress as a whole knew of its existence.

Greenwald picks up on the story after the article and dissects the reasons and logic that supporters of the President and of the policy use to defend the eavesdropping. One by one, his view is that either the logic is flat out false (that FISA is unnecessary during a time of war) or that the justification of the country at war is enough to warrant drastic executive powers that curb civil liberties is a flimsy veneer meant to hide illegalities. There are many points that he takes time to outline, but the underlying theme in How Would A Patriot Act?, is that of a Presidency that has dizzying difficulties in distinguishing what is right and what is wrong.

Greenwald revisits the detention and removal of citizenship rights of two men by the names of Hamdi and Padilla who have been batted about in ethereal legal limbo for upwards of three years. Both men were labeled terrorists and detained without charges and without legal representation and locked up in military brigs. In Hamdi's case, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that the Executive does not have a Constitutional right to detain without charges a citizen of the U.S. For Padilla, a similar situation arose where the Attorney General (at the time Ashcroft) proclaimed his arrest as a terrorist attempting to plot a dirty bomb somewhere in the U.S. Thus, he was labeled an enemy combatant; an ill-defined status that allows for the Commander-in-Chief to decide what fate he may wish to mete on the subject. Before his detention could be challenged the Administration finally charged him with crimes that were unrelated to those claimed at the time of his original detention. More on Padilla from Glenn Greenwald's web log.

In closing his book, Greenwald focuses on why terrorism is so important to the White House and to the Republican-controlled Congress: fear. His suggestion is that with the fear of further attacks the conservative response of strength to the indifference of civil liberties will reward the government with greater control through electoral success. There must certainly be an honest belief within the West Wing and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue that what is being done in the name of safety is really helping the country, yet one may only read the speeches at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City to learn how fear dominated the discourse.

In order to defend its policies whether they be torture, warrantless eavesdropping, rescinding habeas corpus, or an overly secretive state, President Bush made use of fear in order to quell any popular resentment at the loss of civil liberties. All of our lives could be wiped out tomorrow if he is not permitted to listen in to calls without a warrant. Never mind that the President very carefully told an audience in Buffalo, NY that when he talks about wiretaps there is always a court order involved. He knew that not to be the case, but when it would poll well to admit to illegally eavesdropping on American citizens if it was couched in, "I'm protecting you," language, then so it must be.

If the reader has the chance, this book is strongly suggested to better understand what it is that upsets those who wish their civil liberties not be trampled upon. Glenn Greenwald may not have delivered a book epic in length, but it captures the spirit of patriotism and indignation that is the movement against this Administration.

Visit Glenn's web log or buy the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Borders.

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