This is the second part, of a two part series, identifying the patterns and tendencies that have enabled unchecked spying in America and related constitutional abuses.
The first major cause is a Far Right that is currently confusing big secretive unchecked government with patriotism, and in this instance with an acceptable strategy for gathering necessary anti terrorist intelligence. This series focuses on the two other main factors that have enabled this direction that we are currently taking.
Part I focused on the role of Democrats, both in and outside of Congress. This second part will examine the role of the media, as well as why these questions matter so much.
Unfortunately, much of the media has now come to believe that its job is to serve as a reflection rather than an illumination of what is going on in America today. Of course, the media still breaks many stories, and does sometimes cover relevant facts. However, on many of the more important fundamental questions our Nation faces -- no matter how nonpartisan the questions -- if there are strong partisan implications, the media has more often than not simply served as a reflecting board devoid of the necessary underlying context or information. Or simply ignored the story altogether.
And almost nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than with respect to questions of big, secretive, government choking off (and sometimes even twisting) the flow of public information upon which an open, democratic form of government so depends. And with respect to the constitutional breakdown that has occurred under what the media is too timid to correctly label as Far Right wing rule.
And these are not small stories.
As John Dean, counsel to Richard Nixon, puts it: "To say that the [Bush-Cheney] secret presidency is undemocratic is an understatement. I'm anything but skittish about government, but I must say this administration is truly scary and, given the times we live in, frighteningly dangerous."
Other Republicans, although less stringently, echo similar sentiments. Here's just one publication from one of the two leading conservative think tanks in America. (Yet, as part I also addressed, Democrats and other moderates are similarly not utilizing this credibility to help effectively establish and illuminate the issues.)
(Putting this in some historical context, further reading on some eerie parallels to fascism can be found in this excellent diary, as well as this diary raising a few of the same questions in a briefer, and slightly more subdued, fashion.)
Yet a lot of this simply is not being noticed or paid attention to.
In a comment on here to Representative John Conyers, I noted:
The most radical changes to sovereign states often occur right before the populace's eyes, with the majority having little idea of what is going on, often obfuscated by intense, belief driven rhetoric and demonization of other views (and of course, of the press, no matter how slanted their coverage already might be in order to not "appear" biased towards those same radical views).
What we are witnessing right now is the transcendance of intense, belief driven rhetoric, over logic and fact. So much so that even some Democrats in Congress have become partially complicit.
How can we change that?
We can continue to whine on here. And rant fests, and whine fests, along with an assorted allotment of insightful pieces, can continue to make it to the top of the recommend list. Or we can 1) focus on how to communicate the same messages, to an audience outside of the largely self reverberating and self reaffirmation chamber collectively (and not always accurately) known as the so called "left" blogosphere, and 2) focus on the issue of media deconsolidation; on how to shatter the Far Right created national psyche that the media slants facts to the left; on holding the media more accountable and responsible; and on making the case more effectively, and directly, to those in the media itself.
I have suggested that Democrats have not tended to be process oriented, and that this has been an enormous impediment to success ("success" being very conservatively defined as simply "not allowing a far right wing cabal to yank America egregiously astray from some of its core founding principles).
And one of the most important processes in a vibrant, robust, democracy, is the role of the media.
George Mason called the press "one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty." Alexander De Tocqueville called the press the chief democratic (as in democracy, not Democratic Party) instrument of freedom. In fact, Thomas Jefferson once stated that if forced to choose between the two, he would choose having an independent press over actual government itself.
Yet what has been the role of the media lately?
There is current belief: Just after the last presidential election, then Managing Editor of one of the nation's leading newspapers, Steve Coll of the Washington Post, stated that one of the media's main purposes was to provide a non-governmental check on power. Coll went on to say, "it is crucial for the media...to rise to this occasion and do the independent, fact-based reporting that can help hold this power to account."
And there is reality: Which is, namely, that when it has come to some of the most important issues of our time, we have seen nothing of the sort.
A front page piece on this site recently put it like this:
"What we don't have in 2007 is a fourth estate, in large part, that has the principle and the gumption to fill it's role exposing government abuses. Partly as a result, we also don't have an electorate that is shocked and outraged at what has been done to them in the name of national security."
We also don’t have an electorate, as a result, that is informed. And democracy only works properly with an informed electorate.
And this is not just my opinion, or George Mason’s, or Alexander De Tocqueville’s, or Thomas Jefferson’s. Ben Franklin also once very aptly observed "It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins."
And two of the most respected journalists in our history have sounded off as well: Bill Moyers put it this way: "Free and responsible government by popular consent just cannot exist without an informed public." And no less than perhaps America’s most trusted name in news the past several decades, Walter Cronkite, suggested that,"We are on the precipice of being so ignorant that our democracy is threatened."
Along with Democrats continuing to take far too much for granted, playing into Right wing rhetoric, and failing to effectively articulate and broadly communicate the case (as part Ioutlined), let‘s take a look at the role of the media (and notably the Post itself) with respect to this critical issue of FISA, and spying on Americans.
How is the media enabling ignorance, rather than informing and serving as a check on power? Consider nationally leading "Liberal" media figure Joe Klein, who manages to turn this very issue of FISA and spying, upside down.
"In two short paragraphs, Klein manages to say: "I am absolutely opposed to [eavesdropping without a FISA court ruling], and I vigorously support this bill which grants [eavesdropping without a FISA court ruling]."
That is, Klein vigorously opposes almost the entire purpose of the bill that he at the same time vigorously purports to support.
As Greenwald suggests, his "support for a new law that he does not understand ... is instructive as to why the bill passed in August, and why there is such a danger now that it will be made permanent."
Yet rather than an anamoly, this example in some form or another has become more the norm. As a brief case study as to why this issue is so misunderstood, let’s examine an even more critical illustration from the Post itself; which in the words of Coll, is supposed to serve as a "non governmental check upon power," rather than a cheerleader for it.
No less an important "Democrat/Liberal" than David Ignatius, who served as editor of the world renowned International Herald Tribune, and who serves as an associate editor and editorial writer at the Washington Post, recently wrote:
After the revelation that the Bush administration had been conducting warrantless wiretaps, there was a broad consensus that the NSA's surveillance efforts should be brought within the legal framework of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
What did Ignatius possibly mean by this misleading statement? Was it a sugar coated suggestion that what was previously illegal behavior, not only ought to be legalized, but that there is a broad consensus that this needs to be done? Consensus among whom? Those that don’t understand the Constitution? The Bush administration, a small cadre of overly influential Far Right Wing figures, and an occasional compliant Democratic Congress person?
Such a suggestion of "broad consensus" is far from the truth, to state it mildly. More importantly, it does not even begin to address the ramifications of what it means; that is, the ramifications of not only an unchecked power, but the unchecked power of government to spy upon its own citizens, when our country was explicitly founded upon the notion that unchecked power would ultimately be abused, and our Constitution was established specifically to prevent it.
But perhaps Ignatius meant that clandestine abuses of the Constitution aside, the illegal activity conducted in violation of both national law, and of the separation of powers clauses of the Constitution, needs to be conducted in accordance with the minimal oversight protections put into place under FISA.
If so, it was a really odd way of saying it.
But given that in 2006, Ignatius rather incredibly labeled such a view an obstructionist, "absolutist agenda" in his words, "rather than seeking a compromise that would anchor the program in law," this seems unlikely.
In other words, instead of abiding by the law, or amending the law to take into account that some foreign to foreign communications (which do not fall under FISA) can now be routed through the U.S. -- "absolutist" position that requiring some minimal degree of meaningful oversight on actual U.S. communications that it is -- this view seeks to "hold up" a meaningful counterintelligence program designed to give us the intelligence we need. As if the idea of a means for legitimate oversight as to whether the program is actually being used in the manner intended, and valid counterintelligence, are now, for the first time in our history, mutually exclusive.
It seems likely that Ignatius, consistent with most of the media’s approach these days, meant some sort of false compromise of the two -- a similarly egregious notion. For here is what he also more recently writes:
Crafting a solid compromise that has long-term bipartisan support has so far proved impossible.
In other words, according to our stalwarts in the press today, the idea of rectifying Article 1 and Article II, and potential 1st, 4th, and 5th Amendment lawbreaking, is not to cease the lawbreaking -- that is, not cease the necessary activity of counterintelligence, but bring it under some sort of meaningful system of independent oversight, as both the law and Constitution requires -- but, instead, to "compromise" on it.
He also casually notes:
The White House -- wanted more concessions. The deal collapsed, and the White House, sensing it had the upper hand, pushed through a more accommodating Senate bill that would have to be renewed in six months.
That is, an eerily Orwellian bill (right down to its "Protect America Act" name), that gutted FISA and the oversight protection that FISA specifically mandated -- lest the "foreign aspect" of what were similarly U.S. communications be used to circumvent the straightforward liberties and protections under the Bill of Rights -- by proclaiming that FISA "still applies" but "doesn’t apply to foreign communications as defined by FISA" (which is all FISA ever applied to in the first place), is now, in the doublespeak of the media, simply "more accommodating."
In the last paragraph of his piece, Ignatius wrote:
A healthy political system would reach a compromise to allow aggressive surveillance of our adversaries.
Thus, Ignatius strongly suggests, the idea that a system of oversight, with a legitimate record so that there is not an unchecked ability to spy on whomever, and whenever, the Executive Branch wants, based solely upon its constitutionally and legally meaningless assurances that it "believed" it was relevant, somehow prohibits aggressive surveillance of our adversaries; That is, the same falsity that the Far Right has been misleading America on now for several years, and which leading, so called "moderate" beltway voices of media punditry have not apparently become national cheerleaders for. One more time, because this point can not be emphasized enough (yet few, particularly in Congress, are making it): As if the idea of a means for legitimate oversight as to whether the program is actually being used in the manner intended, and valid counterintelligence, are now, for the first time in our history, mutually exclusive. The fact of the matter is, our system of oversight and checks has little or nothing to do with information that can somehow enable terrorists to "avoid" being spied up.
And Ignatius concludes with this astounding, and again, highly misleading line:
The challenge is to put this necessary surveillance under solid legal rules. If the two sides can't get together on this one, the public should howl bloody murder.
The public should not howl bloody murder because the administration, with essentially no meaningful oversight and in violation of the most basic principle that our nation was founded upon, first took it upon itself in violation of the law, and now wants the recognized ability to spy on Americans with essentially no meaningful oversight. But rather should because there are instead, "two partisan sides" that in his words elsewhere in the piece, "won’t compromise."
And Ignatius’ compromise? Not give the administration the authority to engage in all the surveillance of potential terrorist leads that it could ever want, but agree to grant that authority with, again, largely meaningless oversight of exactly who is being spied upon, and for what purposes, and make it legal. That is Ignatius’ "compromise."
And how does he justify this type of Orwellian Logic? "We face an adversary that would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans if it could." And according to this logic, or at least the logic that is being obsequiously presented to the public -- the only way to do this is to grant the Executive exactly what our Constitution was set up in the first place to prevent, and that is what in practical terms amounts to an unchecked power.
The sad thing is that statements like that, to a seemingly half asleep mainstream media overly influenced by screams of "liberal" and (other things) which the far right for years has shrilly attached upon anything that does not accord with its own often autocratic views (including the media itself when it simply reports the simple facts), are now being labeled staunchly to the Left; and the rather extreme views that such beltway pundits are seemingly cheerleading for, as "reasonable" and "centrist."
The above lazy categorizations have also become the norm, as almost every issue, according to the media today, has to have "two sides." And one simply has to be, in their minds, "liberal" or "special interest type groups" -- statements by staunch conservatives like Fein, such as when he wrote that "the most conservative principle of our Founding Fathers was distrust of unchecked power," notwithstanding. For any reasonably correct characterization might require the media to do its job.
No matter how it is being spun by a defensive and equally self righteous media itself, the underlying reality is that Ignatius’ framing and representations on this issue, as is much of the media coverage on it, is irresponsible.
And irresponsible coverage means that the media is not serving its role. A role that is so important, that Jefferson would have chosen it over the very existence of government itself.
Tying parts I and II here together, the increasing media mediocrity and accommodation by it of the Right in order to create some false appearance of "balance" no matter what the facts , needs to be addressed. This is not being effectively done. And it is perhaps making it both easier for the media to continue to mischaracterize these issues, as well as more difficult for the media to engage in the type of seemingly hard hitting journalism that the facts require, if, as part I of this series pointed out, not enough Democratic and other leaders themselves are not publicly making the case.
And that, along with addressing the question of the media directly, should be the focus here, and everywhere.