The Dogs of Government

Those who govern, the overseers of the nation’s laws and affairs, are but dogs. Though they may guard the gates of the republic and grant us their protection, though they may manifest a certain loyalty and kindness, though they may submit to our authority or leash, though they may avidly and even gently accept the offerings of our hands, they cannot be entirely trusted. They are dogs. The nature of such beasts is not wholly predictable, no matter how tamed they may seem. To disregard their inherent wildness, their violent potential, or their pack mentality is to risk being bitten. They are dogs, and they can turn on their masters in a snarling flash. Vigilance is the price of ownership.

Thus, when those who govern urge our unconditional trust and ask that we overlook their past offenses—even while our hands still throb from their bite—great caution is required. Case in point, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings yesterday on a proposal that would, in effect, broaden the government’s ability to conduct warrantless surveillance on Americans and decrease legislative oversight over such. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration favors this proposal, as reported in today’s New York Times:

Administration and Critics, in Senate Testimony, Clash Over Eavesdropping Compromise

Senior Bush administration officials said Wednesday that it would be impractical for them to obtain individual warrants every time they needed to eavesdrop on a conversation suspected of involving Al Qaeda. They urged Congress to approve a proposal that critics said would give the president broad, unchecked powers.

In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, called the proposal, developed by Senator Arlen Specter and the White House, “a great opportunity� to modernize intelligence-gathering procedures in a way that would “protect our liberty and security.�

General Hayden’s testimony, and that of two other senior officials, amounted to the administration’s first pitch for the Specter-White House agreement. Under the proposal, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secrecy to rule on usual government requests for warrants in intelligence cases, would decide whether the administration’s program of monitoring international communications of Americans without warrants is constitutional.

But critics attacked the agreement Wednesday as abdication to the White House. Mr. Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, appeared particularly stung at the hearing when a civil liberties advocate, James X. Dempsey, told him he would prefer to see no legislation at all, allowing the National Security Agency to continue wiretapping Americans without warrants, than Congressional approval of procedures outside the scope of the 1978 law that created the secret court.

In agreeing to that court’s review of the N.S.A. program, the White House had insisted that the bill include language implicitly recognizing the president’s “constitutional authority� to collect foreign intelligence beyond the provisions of the 1978 law. Mr. Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said at the hearing that he appreciated Mr. Specter’s efforts to bring the N.S.A. program under judicial review but that “the price you paid for that simple concession is far too high.�

The proposal, he said, “would turn the clock back to an era of unchecked presidential power, warrantless domestic surveillance and constitutional uncertainty.� [full text]

The Center for Democracy and Technology is not alone in opposing Specter’s proposal. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release yesterday in which they “raised strong objections to S. 2453, the National Security Surveillance Act,� and “urged Congress to reject attempts to further erode the Fourth Amendment and its protections.� Similarly, the Washington Post ran an editorial yesterday that expressed considerable concern about Congress handing the executive branch a “blank check to spy� and, using Mr. Specter’s own words against him, argued that “his legislation would essentially respond to this festering sore [of the NSA program] by shooting the patient.� Also questioning the Senator’s bill was Shayana Kadidal, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has raised legal challenges to the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. Writing in Jurist, Kadidal asserts that the bill “is a sell out, of both Congress and the American people.�

In short, the dogs are turning on us. It’s time to pay due attention and either shorten the leash or get ourselves some new dogs.


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