The Upside of Flaming Cars: Politicians and the Press Exploit the British Terror Attacks

In the wake of the failed car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow, tens of thousands of Brits donned their stiff upper lips on Sunday and took in a concert at Wembley stadium in honor of Princess Diana.

In Washington, opportunistic politicians donned their curled lips and went on the Sunday shows to use the attacks as an excuse to allow the president a freer hand to spy on the American people.

First up we had Joe Lieberman, appearing on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Lieberman established that he is not only independent of any political party but, increasingly, of reality itself by claiming that "the surge is working" in Iraq (must be all those playgrounds and soccer stadiums). And he made his case that the smoking Mercedes in London and the flaming Jeep Cherokee, apparently driven by a Jordanian physician, aimed at the Glasgow airport are a justification for more warrantless wiretaps here at home. "I hope these terrorist attacks in London wake us up here in America to stop the petty partisan fighting going on about...electronic surveillance," he said. "We're at a partisan gridlock over the question of whether the American government can listen into conversations or follow email trails of non-American citizens."

Of course, as Lieberman must know, the "gridlock" in Congress is not over whether the administration should be able to listen in, but over whether it should be able to listen in without following the law. Plus, the NSA program covered spying on U.S. citizens, not just "non-Americans." But why worry about facts when there's a fallacious point to be made?

Also making the pitch for an unfettered president, free to eavesdrop on whomever he wants, whenever he wants, was Rep. Peter King, ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. Appearing on CNN's Late Edition, King said that the failed British attacks show that the best way to fight "the war on terrorism" is "to not allow people to cut into electronic surveillance, to stop that, to not be tying the hands of the president, neither here or in foreign policy."

The thinking of people like Lieberman and King (to say nothing of Bush and Cheney), when it comes to terrorism is as illogical as it is entrenched. It goes something like this: When someone attacks -- or tries to attack -- us or one of our allies because we are a free society, we should respond by making ourselves less free. That'll show the bastards!

This is not in any way to suggest that we shouldn't take terrorist threats seriously -- or that there aren't a lot of very dangerous people intent on carrying out attacks against us or our allies. But surely the answer isn't allowing Bush and Cheney to shred the Constitution -- and to continue making the spurious connection between Iraq and the war on terror. As Gordon Brown told the BBC on Sunday, "We are in the business of dealing with a long-term threat, a sustained threat that is unrelated in detail to one specific point of conflict in the world."

The key is to stay vigilant, but also to keep acts like those in Great Britain in perspective. For the moment, both the British and the White House seem to be doing a fairly good job of that. The administration hasn't jacked up our terror alert level and Bush is moving ahead with his vacation visit with Vladimir Putin in Kennebunkport.

The press has been a different story -- it's latched on to the London and Glasgow attacks with the usual red alert ardor. As former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism expert Larry Johnson put it: "My main beef remains that much of the cable news media reacts to this nonsense like a fifty year old guy on Viagra or Cialis -- they pop major wood. And the same warnings are appropriate--an erection lasting more than four hours may be harmful."

Take Tim Russert, whose interview with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was about as priapic a display as you're ever likely to see outside of a porno, with Russert desperately trying to get Chertoff to crank up the panic meter.

"Will we increase the number of air marshals on flights to Britain and Scotland?" he asked. "Is there any chatter that you can detect regarding terrorism in the United States during this holiday period?" "Will we raise our threat level?" "Considering the simplicity of putting together a suicide bomb by using an automobile, are you surprised that the United States has not been hit harder by this kind of device?" You could almost hear the blood rushing to his loins -- and the palpable sense of deflation when Chertoff refused to take the bait.

When his heavy breathing subsided, Russert turned his attention to the flaming Cherokee/warrantless wiretapping connection (which could turn out to be this summer's Iraq-9/11 link). He opened his interview with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy by asking, "As you well know, you have issued subpoenas on the Bush White House regarding the eavesdropping, wiretapping put in place by the president after September 11th. Critics this morning will say, Senator, that this plan is so essential to monitoring contacts between international terrorists and people here in the United States that subpoenas now is very, very counterproductive and could affect our anti-terrorism situation."

Russert didn't specify which "critics" these might be. Critics of the rule of law? Critics of the Constitution? Critics of our Founding Fathers? Is it possible for an informed person to honestly misread the standoff between the Senate and the White House over the NSA spying program that badly?

When it comes to the threat of terrorism, it seems that if the government isn't trying to scare us to death, the press is. The exploitation of fear continues to be our leaders' and our media's ace in the hole -- for votes, for ratings, for curtailing our freedoms.

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