There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bush's Law on the bus

Finished reading New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau's book, "Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice," which tells the story of the excesses of the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks.

This book is part memoir. Eric Lichtblau covered the Justice Department for the Los Angeles Times from 1999 to 2002 and then moved over to the New York Times. It was Lichtblau and New York Times intelligence reporter James E. Risen who won the 2006 Pulitzer Price for National Reporting for their articles on domestic spying. Much of the story revolves around the exigencies of reporting the story of the Justice Department's effort to switch gears from capturing criminals to capturing people thinking about committing crimes. In telling the story, Lichtblau recalls the high ideals that drive the best journalism and reveals the base competition for a scoop that governs judgments of newsworthiness all too often.

It was interesting to compare Lichtblau's perspective to that of Amy B. Zegart's academic study of the transformation -- or failure to transform -- described in "Spying Blind." Lichtblau focuses the blame at the top of the Justice Department.

"In May of 2001, Ashcroft's budget people began putting together their proposals for the next fiscal year. The preliminary listing of the department's top fiscal priorities made no mention of counterterrorism. ... The FBI had asked for an extra $58 million for 149 new counterterrorism field agents, two hundred analysts, and fifty-four more translators -- all critical areas in the fight against terrorism. Ashcroft's people at Main Justice nixed the increases in their budget plan. ... Ashcroft's budget package went over to the White House, minus the requested increases sought by the FBI for tracking terrorism. The date was September 10, 2001."

And on Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed.

Lichtblau spends much of the early part of the book somewhat breathlessly describing excesses of the post-9/11 effort to make sure there were no other terrorist sleepers cells planning another attack. I found myself sympathetic with the FBI. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I think a case can be made that the nation was at war and certain rules needed to bend.

That, however, doesn't excuse the way the Bush administration went about bending those rules. Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush and the sycophants in the White House such as senior national security adviser David Addington clearly felt no law applied to them. The NSA effort to mine vast amounts of electronic communications could have been done within the law or, as was eventually done, the law changed. The use of SWIFT banking transaction information to trace the financing of terrorism could have been modified to answer legitimate privacy concerns.

The Bush administration didn't so much invoke emergency powers as it denied Congress its rightful, co-equal responsibility. And if left alone, it would have continued. Imagine the Bush administration without an unfettered free press. That's a scary, very scary, thought.

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