Blind faith in the Bush administration

The revelations of the FBI's illegal use of NSLs illustrate how our country has been functioning for the last six years.

Published March 10, 2007 1:55PM (EST)

(updated below)

Now that even Alberto Gonzales' DOJ has acknowledged that the FBI has been violating the law with regard to its NSL powers, there are some important lessons that one can learn, if one is so inclined, about how our country has operated for the last six years. Let us begin with the fact that the Inspector General's Office which issued this report is merely a mid-level subordinate DOJ office that reports to the Attorney General, and its conclusions (particularly its exculpatory ones) are hardly dispositive. The oversight here is not the Report itself. That is just the start. The oversight is the Congressional investigation which must follow to determine the scope of the wrongdoing and what actually motivated it.

But the good little authoritarians who always reflexively embrace every unchecked pronouncement by the Bush administration as though it is the Gospel Truth -- the attribute which is, at its core, the defining one of a mindless authoritarian -- are (consistent with that mindset) now running around shrilly insisting that the Leader did no real wrong, because the DOJ Report said that nothing was really done with malicious intent here. The DOJ has spoken, and that settles that. With this mentality, these reflexive Bush defenders are exhibiting precisely the profound character flaw that has led to all of these abuses in the first place: namely, blind, gullible, cult-like and distinctly un-American trust in the assurances of the Leader without any demands of scrutiny, accountability, corroboration or oversight.

As is so often the case, Arlen Specter enables excellent insight into how this mindset functions. With these revelations of the FBI's lawbreaking yesterday, Specter was strutting around making all sorts of dramatic protest noises, acting as though he is some sort of guardian of checks and balances and civil liberties. In fact, as Judiciary Committee Chairman from 2002 until 2006, Specter eagerly enabled a virtually complete dismantling of the system of checks and balances on presidential power, and did so by blindly and timidly relying upon administration assurances that they were acting properly.

The same Specter who now professes such grave concern over the abuse of the NSLs is the very same one who led the fight on behalf of the administration to re-authorize the Patriot Act by stampeding over concerns about, among other things, the potential for abuse of NSLs. On December 12, 2005, Specter wrote this letter (.pdf) to six Senators (including 3 Republicans) who were resisting renewal of the Patriot Act due to concerns about the potential for abuse by the Bush administration of NSLs.

Specter's letter -- written after publication of Barton Gellman's documented expose of NSL abuses in The Washington Post -- emphatically assured those worried Senators that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, because the administration secretly assured the Intelligence Committee that everything was being handled properly, and that settles that:

Specter's letter insisting that there were few if any "problems" was written at exactly the time when the FBI was in total disarray and was issuing NSLs left and right in systematic violation of the law. But this is how our government has been run for the last six years. The Bush administration acts in total secrecy. It insists upon the power to engage in any conduct it wants.

In those isolated cases where we learn about what the administration has been doing in secret, or where Congress pretends to demand information, the administration refuses to provide any actual information (see, e.g., the NSA scandal ). Instead, they simply issue boilerplate assurances that the law is being complied with, that the powers are being exercised responsibly and properly, that there is no abuse, and that they have created ample "safeguards" (always within the Executive Branch) to ensure that no abuse occurs. Whatever isolated instances of abuse or impropriety end up being leaked are dismissed away as pure aberrations, the work of bad apples, and they profess how gravely concerned they are about such abuses and assure us that they are working diligently to ensure they never occur again.

And that is always the end of the story. No claims by the Bush administration have been meaningfully investigated because the authoritarian sickness that has governed our country has meant that there is blind faith in the representations made by the President, with no corroboration or investigation needed.

In the case of the NSLs, for instance, the DOJ -- after the Post article on NSLs was published -- repeatedly insisted to Congress when it was debating re-authorization of the Patriot Act in November, 2005, that the claims in the Post story were false. As but one example, the DOJ sent a letter, from Assistant Attorney General William Moschella to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Sensenbrenner, accusing the Post of presenting a "materially misleading portrayal" of the FBI's use of national security letters (I am attempting to find that original Moschella letter; if you find it online, please leave the link in comments or by e-mail).

Obviously (as even the DOJ is now being forced to acknowledge), the attacks on the Post article by the DOJ were simply false. If anything, the Post article under-stated the problems with the NSLs. The DOJ simply gave false assurances to Congress that there were no problems with the FBI's use of NSLs and assured Congress that all regulations and laws were being complied with. Those claims were lies, designed to steamroll over concerns about the NSLs and induce the Congress to re-authorize the Patriot Act, which it did. As the Post reports this morning:

The findings by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine were so at odds with previous assertions by the Bush administration that Capitol Hill was peppered yesterday with retraction letters from the Justice Department attempting to correct statements in earlier testimony and briefings. Gonzales and other officials had repeatedly portrayed national security letters as a well-regulated tool necessary for the prevention of terrorist attacks.

One such retraction letter, sent to Specter by Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling, sought to correct a 2005 letter that attacked a Washington Post story about national security letters. "We have determined that certain statements in our November 23 letter need clarification," Hertling wrote.

How can this be tolerated or excused? This is outright lying at the highest levels of the DOJ about one of the most critical matters debated in Congress over the last six years -- namely, whether to re-authorize broad investigative powers used to spy on American citizens, powers which were first vested, with virtually no debate, in the hysteria-filled environment immediately following the 9/11 attacks.

But this is what has been going since 9/11. It is the norm. It is the standard operating procedure for how our country has been governed. And there are no consequences -- none -- for the series of blatantly and deliberately false statements made about the most vital public matters by the highest levels of the Bush administration.

To this day, we have no idea how the administration used its illegal warrantless eavesdroppoing powers to spy on the conversations of Americans for five years, in total secrecy, because there does not seem to be much of a desire to know. After all, they have assured us that they were using these secret eavesdroppoing powers only against Terrorists and only to protect us, that they created all kinds of great and elaborate safeguards to protect us, and that we have nothing to worry about.

That mentality was captured perfectly by former NSA Director and current Director of the CIA Gen. Michael Hayden, when asked in January, 2006 how American can trust that the eavesdropping powers were not being abused given that they were exercising them in secret and with no oversight. Hayden's response: We should just trust them, because they are Good:

I'm disappointed I guess that perhaps the default response for some is to assume the worst. I'm trying to communicate to you that the people who are doing this, okay, go shopping in Glen Burnie and their kids play soccer in Laurel, and they know the law. They know American privacy better than the average American, and they're dedicated to it. So I guess the message I'd ask you to take back to your communities is the same one I take back to mine. This is focused. It's targeted. It's very carefully done. You shouldn't worry.

That is good enough for the authoritarian mind, by definition; but it is woefully, self-evidently inadequate -- outrageously so -- for the American mind.

Our whole system of government, from the very beginning, has been predicated centrally on one fairly simple, clear, and easy-to-digest concept: we do not trust government leaders to exercise power in secret and without external oversight. That is because history shows that political leaders who exercise power in that unchecked and unaccountable manner are likely to abuse it.

Placing blind faith in the assurances of our political leaders is the precise antithesis of the ethos on which our system of government was founded. Why is that principle even controversial? Since when did we become a country filled with "journalists" and others who are content with allowing political officials to wield unchecked power and who are eager to place blind trust in their Goodness?

UPDATE: In the 2005 TPM post of Sen. Feingold's to which I linked yesterday -- in which he argued against re-authorization of the Patriot Act and specifically warned of the dangers of NSL abuses -- Feingold explicitly cited the November 23 DOJ/Moschella letter (which is here - .pdf) that accused the Post of materially misrepresenting the FBI's use of NSLs, along with a lengthy and well-documented reply from the Post (h/t sysprog). Taken together, as Feingold said at time, one can easily see "all the inconsistencies and misleading statements in the DOJ letter."

This is the key point. Prior to re-authorization of the Patriot Act, there were multiple concerns being raised -- by a handful of Senators and The Washington Post -- over the FBI's abuse of NSLs. But those concerns were brushed aside by false assurances from the Justice Department that the Post's claims were false. We know now, of course, that it was the DOJ's claims which were false - and they have now begun retracting some of those claims now that the real behavior of the FBI is being revealed -- but they succeeded in swindling the Congress into re-authorizing the Patriot Act and continuing to vest drastically expanded NSL powers in the FBI.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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