If one good thing can come from our country’s apparent decision to legalize torture, perhaps we can finally agree to kill off the “Myth of the Independent Republican Senators.” To see how this myth plays out time and again, one can take a quick trip down recent memory lane.
When the New York Times revealed on Dec. 16 of last year that the Bush administration has been secretly eavesdropping on Americans without warrants even though doing so is a felony under federal law, several Republican senators expressed what they called “grave concerns,” and they both demanded and promised full-scale investigations. Two key Republican senators in particular, Olympia Snowe and Chuck Hagel (“key” because they are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee) emphatically vowed in a Dec. 21, 2005, letter that there would be hearings to investigate fully the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program. They proclaimed: “We strongly believe that the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees should immediately seek to answer the factual and legal questions which surround these revelations, and recommend appropriate action to the Senate.”
As of Feb. 20, 2006, Newsweek was reporting that “three Republicans — Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Mike DeWine of Ohio — are expected to join with the Democrats on the [intelligence] committee to vote to demand more information about the secret eavesdropping program from the White House and intelligence agencies.” And it seemed that, at long last, the Bush administration had crossed a line — violating congressional restrictions on eavesdropping and then, when caught, defiantly proclaiming the right to do so — which even Republican senators could not tolerate without having at least a hearing.
But when Sen. Jay Rockefeller introduced a motion in the Intelligence Committee on March 8 to hold hearings to investigate the NSA program, each and every Republican senator — including Snowe, Hagel and DeWine — voted against it, and the motion thus failed by an 8-7 vote. With that complete capitulation, the Intelligence Committee — which has as its prime function ensuring that intelligence activities (such as, say, government eavesdropping on Americans) comply with the law — held no hearings on the NSA program, and as a result, we (meaning American citizens, as well as our senators) still do not know even the most basic facts about warrantless eavesdropping, including how many Americans have been spied on, which Americans were subjected to warrantless eavesdropping, how they were selected for eavesdropping, etc.
Anyone who, at any time over the past five years, has placed faith in those Republican senators who parade around as independent checks on the president has suffered nothing but one disappointment after the next. The poster child for this complex is Arlen Specter, who may be the most vivid example, but he is far from the only one. Is there any significant Bush administration policy or action over the past five years that “moderate, independent” Republicans have stopped or even diluted (or even tried to stop) in any meaningful way? They engage in the pretense of independence over and over, but then end up not just failing to impede, but actively enabling, the administration’s most extreme measures.
Certain pundits who have been decrying the Bush administration’s use of torture as the ultimate evil have, at the same time, been glorifying Sen. John McCain (and others like Sen. John Warner) as exemplary independent political figures. Andrew Sullivan is an example of such a pundit, as is David Broder. What will Sullivan and Broder say now that their allegedly independent and principled heroes have expressly endorsed a legislative framework that authorizes torture? It is time for every honest and rational person who wanted to believe in the Myth of the Independent Republican Senators (and I include myself in that group) to declare this myth dead and bury it once and for all.