A Less Democratic Nation

Six months after 9/11, we experience an eerie sense of normalcy. The Oscars generate their usual hype; friends once again discuss divorce. People return to airplanes; fans eagerly await a new baseball season.

Yet, nothing is normal. Beneath the routine sounds and sights of daily life lurks the stark, unsettling fact that our society is not as democratic as it was last summer.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks created a legitimate need for heightened security, intensified surveillance and enhanced intelligence. Like other Americans, I fully support the Bush administration's effort to protect us from further terrorist attacks. But nothing -- absolutely nothing -- justifies the secrecy that has shrouded the Bush presidency, its gratuitous violation of civil liberties, or its corrosive constraints on our most cherished democratic practices.

Consider what has happened during these past six months. President Bush has repeatedly invoked executive privilege and refused congressional requests for information. He created a shadow government without informing congressional leaders. He overturned the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and gave himself the right to seal past presidential papers since 1980. He deposited his own gubernatorial papers in his father's presidential library where they are inaccessible to the public.

On the defense front, the Bush administration appointed John M. Poindexter -- who, along with Ollie North, masterminded the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scam -- to head the Pentagon's new Office of Information Awareness. The president has extended the war on terrorism to Yemen, Georgia and the Philippines without a declaration of war or congressional approval. He even declared a new unilateralist Bush Doctrine: The United States reserves the right to enter any nation to pursue terrorists or destroy weapons of mass destruction, whether or not it is invited by a head of state and without seeking approval from the U.N. Security Council.

Members of Congress are finally resisting this assault on the system of checks and balances that our nation's founders created to protect our democratic government. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is suing Vice President Dick Cheney for refusing to hand over records from secretly held energy meetings. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has asked the GAO to investigate the impact of Attorney General John Ashcroft's Oct. 12 memo to all federal agencies, in which he urged them to resist Freedom of Information Act requests.

But Congress must do more to restore its check on an increasingly imperious presidency. The Bush administration is using the threat of terrorism to curtail civil liberties, bully legislators, scatter troops across the world and intimidate Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Syria with the threat of pre-emptive tactical nuclear strikes.

George W. Bush should remember that he lost the popular vote and never received a mandate from the American people for these policies. His current approval ratings, according to many political analysts, rest more on fear than on a national consensus.

He should tread carefully. Americans recognize that patriotism is not only the willingness to fight fascism or terrorism, but also the passion to protect our democratic freedoms right here, at home.

Ruth Rosen is a Chronicle editorial writer.

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