Jihadis throw a wild bash over the Protect America Act

As GOP fear-mongering sinks to new lows, is the House Democrats' defiance yesterday a one-time event or a sign of things to come?

Published February 15, 2008 10:27AM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

What can one even say about this quote, included in Carl Hulse's NYT article on the Democrats' refusal yesterday to pass the Senate's FISA bill before expiration of the Protect America Act:

"I think there is probably joy throughout the terrorist cells throughout the world that the United States Congress did not do its duty today," said Representative Ted Poe, Republican of Texas.

This is the kind of pure, unadulterated idiocy -- childish, cartoonish and creepy -- that Democrats for years have been allowing to bully them into submission, govern our country, and dismantle our Constitution. Outside of Andy McCarthy, Mark Steyn and their roving band of paranoid right-wing bloggers who can't sleep at night because they think (and hope) that there are dark, primitive "jihadi" super-villains hiding under their beds -- along with the Very Serious pundit class which proves their Seriousness by placing blind faith in the fear-mongering pronouncements and demands of our military and intelligence officials for more unchecked power -- nobody cares about adolescent Terrorist game-playing like this any longer. In the real world, it doesn't work, and it hasn't worked for some time.

Americans are worried and even angry about many things. Whether Osama bin Laden is throwing a party because AT&T and Verizon might have to defend themselves in court isn't one of them. Outside of National Review, K Street, and the fear-paralyzed imagination of our shrinking faux-warrior class, there is no constituency in America demanding warrantless eavesdropping or amnesty for lawbreaking telecoms.

On one level, it's difficult to maintain any sustained optimism about the House's defiance yesterday. They were acting far more out of resentment over the procedural treatment to which they were subjected by the White House and, more so, the Senate -- having a bill dropped in their lap again just a couple of days before a deadline and told that they had to pass it, as is, and immediately -- than out of any principled objection to warrantless eavesdropping or telecom amnesty.

And it's painfully easy to envision more than enough "Blue Dogs" eventually joining their GOP colleagues to pass the Senate bill, thus handing the White House yet another complete victory, even if it comes a little later than it was demanded. In light of the endless series of events over the last twelve months, the hope that some sort of actual conviction will cause this obstructionism to be permanent is far too naive for any rational person to entertain seriously.

Still, basic human nature -- if nothing else -- dictates that having finally liberated themselves, however fleetingly, from the truly moronic rule of the Ted "Osama-is-Celebrating" Poes of the world, and having seen that -- as McJoan put it -- "the Democrats stood up to Bush, and the world didn't end," Democrats will crave more of the sweet taste of dignity and autonomy.

As I've noted before, newspaper headlines throughout the year have invariably (and accurately) used verbs such as "surrender" and "bow" and "succumb" and "capitulate" and "lose" to describe what Democrats have done on key issues with regard to George W. Bush. But look at how they are described today by The Washington Post:

Identically, the NYT article trumpeted the Democrats' stand this way:

Political parties that are "strong," and which are perceived as strong, are ones that "defy" orders and mount "great challenges" against weak and unpopular Presidents by standing on principle -- not ones that bow and capitulate and surrender and lose. Again, leave aside any hope that Democrats will actually be sufficiently motivated by the crucial constitutional principles at stake here. Just basic political self-interest, and basic human dignity, ought to mean that this singular act of defiance will lead to others.

The Post article highlighted the true crux of the "controversy":

White House officials and their allies were angry that the Democrats did not "blink," as one outside adviser said. The decision to defy the White House came in the form of a weeklong adjournment of the House yesterday afternoon.

The reason the President refused to extend by 21 days the "Extremely-Critical-to-our-Survival" Protect America Act -- and instead chose to allow it to expire -- is because the only thing that drives the Republicans is forcing Democrats into ritualistic humiliation: forcing them to surrender and bow over and over. While Jay Rockefeller, Claire McCaskill, Herb Kohl, Ken Salazar and their distinguished friends in the Senate happily rolled over as always, House Democrats, for once, actually refused to play their assigned role of submission, and instead issued clear, potent and persuasive counter-attacks from the likes of Steney Hoyer, Silvestre Reyes, and this one from Chris Van Hollen:

Several Democrats said yesterday that many in their party wish to take a more measured approach to terrorism issues, and they refused to be stampeded by Bush. "We have seen what happens when the president uses fearmongering to stampede Congress into making bad decisions," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "That's why we went to war in Iraq."

When Democrats speak that way -- clearly and with conviction -- the message gets across. Whereas CNN yesterday morning was mouthing the Bush line on surveillance as uncritically as possible in the vapid personage of former (really: current) VJ John Roberts, by the afternoon they were actually making crystal clear the fact that allowing the PAA to expire (a) was Bush's doing for refusing an extension and (b) would not result in any loss of our "intelligence capabilities."

When Democrats actually engage the debate and make their case unapologetically and with some passion, as they remarkably did yesterday, then journalists can and -- at least to some extent -- will convey the message. It's when they run away and hide and act defensively that their message does not get across. One can only hope, even while harboring substantial doubt, that having a taste of this success will drive them to crave more. Our country really can't afford to be bullied any longer by Ted Poe's fantasy jihadi parties and George W. Bush's "you're-all-going-to-die-unless- I-get-everything-I-want" threats.

Contrary to the belief of David Broder and his friends that more meek agreement with the President's demands -- i.e, "bipartisanship" -- is needed, what any healthy democracy desperately requires is precisely this type of adversarial dynamic. The Leader needs to be "defied" and "challenged" and his demands -- especially those for greater unchecked power -- need to be refused if we are to maintain basic "checks and balances" and some form of an accountable government. This is exactly what we have been so destructively lacking.

UPDATE: This morning's headline from CBS News (h/t Awklib):

If Democrats describe what Bush is doing clearly, simply and honestly, then reporters will write it down and read it. It's what they do. Even reporters can understand that when Bush says: "Give me all the new warrantless eavesdropping powers I want and give AT&T protection from lawsuits, otherwise we'll be hit way worse than 9/11," that is pitiful fear-mongering of the type authoritarian politicians always invoke to obtain more unchecked power. Just make that case -- as Democrats did yesterday -- and it will prevail.

UPDATE II: In a surprisingly decent interview with Mike McConnell on NPR, the interviewer provoked McConnell into giving the lie to the President's shrill fear-mongering (h/t Julian Sanchez, via email):

BUSH: Failure to act would harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities, and could re-open dangerous gaps in our intelligence.

NPR: Mr. McConnell, the Bush administration says that if the Protect America Act isn't made permanent, it will tie your hands, intelligence hands, especially when it comes to new threats. But isn't it true that any surveillance underway does not expire, even if this law isn't renewed by tomorrow?

MCCONNELL: Well, Renee it's a very complex issue. It's true that some of the authorities would carry over to the period they were established for one year. That would put us into the August, September time-frame. However, that's not the real issue. The issue is liability protection for the private sector.

The very idea that expiration of the PAA would leave us with "intelligence gaps" is absurd on its face, since we simply revert to the more-than-adequate FISA framework. But even if it were true, those gaps could easily be closed if the administration simply accepted a bill without telecom amnesty.

The issue is not "intelligence gaps." Rather, as McConnell candidly admits, the "real issue" is "liability protection for the private sector." To take them at their word, George Bush and Mike McConnell are putting the nation at risk in order to ensure that AT&T and Verizon do not have to be held accountable in a court of law for having broken the law. Think about how twisted and corrupt that calculus is.

One other vital point: The claim that telecoms will cease to cooperate without retroactive immunity is deeply dishonest on multiple levels, but the dishonesty is most easily understood when one realizes that, under the law, telecoms are required to cooperate with legal requests from the government. They don't have the option to "refuse." Without amnesty, telecoms will be reluctant in the future to break the law again, which we should want. But there is no risk that they will refuse requests to cooperate with legal surveillance, particularly since they are legally obligated to cooperate in those circumstances. The claim the telcoms will cease to cooperate with surveillance requests is pure fear-mongering, and is purely dishonest.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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