Actor Ed Asner has outraged the right with this must-see MoveOn.org video on how drastic inequality developed in this country, the disappearance of the middle class, and a tax system that is ruining democracy and the public sector, schools, retirements, essential services, public works and life for most people. We're not going to let them get away with it, are we?
A political ad paid for by MoveOn.org and starring John Cusack is making a splash on the internet. The 30 second video focuses on McCain and Bush's similar stances on the war, health care and Social Security, and encourages viewers to play the online game, Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Bush/McCain Challenge.Ã¢â‚¬Â
AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by filmmakers are their own.
I have made a series of speeches about the policies of the Bush / Cheney Administration towards the major challenges that confront our nation: national security, economic policy, civil liberties, and today: the environment.
For me, this issue is in a special category because of what I believe is at stake. I am particularly concerned because the vast majority of the most respected environmental scientists from all over the world have sounded a clear and urgent alarm. The international community – including the United States – began a massive effort several years ago to assemble the most accurate scientific assessment of the growing evidence that the earth's environment is sustaining severe and potentially irreparable damage from the unprecedented accumulation of pollution in the global atmosphere.
In essence, these scientists are telling the people of every nation that global warming caused by human activities is becoming a serious threat to our common future. I am also troubled that the Bush/Cheney Administration does not seem to hear the warnings of the scientific community in the same way that most of us do.
Even though the earth is of such vast size, the most vulnerable part of the global environment is the atmosphere – because it is surprisingly thin; as the late Carl Sagan used to say: like a coat of varnish on a globe.
I don't think there is any longer a credible basis for doubting that the earth's atmosphere is heating up because of global warming.
The evidence is overwhelming and undeniable. Global Warming is real. It is happening already and the anticipated consequences are unacceptable. But it is important to understand that this crisis is actually just a symptom of a deeper underlying cause.
Yet in spite of the clear evidence available all around us, there are many who still do not believe that Global Warming is a problem at all. And it's no wonder, because they are the targets of a massive and well-organized campaign of disinformation lavishly funded by polluters who are determined to prevent any action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, out of a fear that their profits might be affected if they had to stop dumping so much pollution into the atmosphere.
And wealthy right-wing ideologues have joined with the most cynical and irresponsible companies in the oil, coal and mining industries to contribute large sums of money to finance pseudo-scientific front groups that specialize in sowing confusion in the public's mind about global warming. They issue one misleading "report" after another, pretending that there is significant disagreement in the legitimate scientific community in areas where there is actually a broad-based consensus.
The techniques they use were pioneered years earlier by the tobacco industry in its long campaign to create uncertainty in the public's mind about the health risks caused by tobacco smoke. Indeed, some of the very same scientific camp-followers who took money from the tobacco companies during that effort are now taking money from coal and oil companies in return for their willingness to say that global warming is not real.
In a candid memo about political strategy for Republican leaders, pollster Frank Luntz expressed concern that voters might punish candidates who supported more pollution, but offered advice on the key tactic for defusing the issue.
The Bush Administration has gone far beyond Luntz' recommendations, however, and has explored new frontiers in cynicism by time and time again actually appointing the principal lobbyists and lawyers for the biggest polluters to be in charge of administering the laws that their clients are charged with violating. Some of these appointees have continued to work very closely with the outside pseudo-scientific front groups even though they are now on the public payroll.
Two Attorneys General have now publicly accused officials in the Bush White House Council on Environmental Quality of conspiring with one of the outside groups to encourage the filing of a lawsuit as part of a shared strategy to undermine the possibility of government action on Global Warming.
Vice President Cheney's infamous "Energy Task Force" advised lobbyists for polluters early in the new administration that there would be no action by the Bush White House on Global Warming and then asked for their help in designing a totally meaningless "voluntary" program. One of the industry lobbyists who heard this pitch later made an unguarded speech to his peers about the experience and said the following:
"Let me put it to you in political terms. The President needs a fig leaf. He's dismantling Kyoto, but he's out there on a limb."
The White House has routinely gone out on a limb to involve large contributors representing companies charged with violating environmental laws and regulations in the drafting of new laws and regulations designed to let their clients off the hook.
The story is the same when it comes to protecting the American people from pollution. The Bush administration chooses special interests over the public interest, ignoring the scientific evidence in favor of policies its contributors demand. Consider mercury, an extremely toxic pollutant causing severe developmental and neurological defects in fetuses. We know its principal unregulated source is coal-fired power plants. But the Bush Administration has gutted the protections of the Clean Air Act, revoking an earlier determination by the EPA that mercury emissions from power plants should be treated as hazardous air pollutants. Even Bush's own FDA issued warning about mercury in tuna.
Are you all right with that - the President saying that Mercury shouldn't be treated as a hazardous air pollutant?
Consider toxic wastes. The Superfund has gone from $3.8 billion to a shortfall of $175 million. The result is fewer cleanups, slower cleanups, and a toxic mess left for our children. That's because the Bush administration has let its industry friends off the hook; the tax these polluters used to pay to support the Superfund has been eliminated, so that you, me, and other taxpayers are left holding the bill.
Are you all right with that - the country's worst polluters getting off the hook while you and I pay?
And consider the enforcement of environmental laws. For three years in a row, the Bush administration has sought to slash enforcement personnel levels at EPA. Offices were told to back off cases, leaving one veteran EPA servant to say, "The rug was pulled out from under us...You look around and say, "What contribution can I make here?"
Are you all right with that - the EPA being stripped of its ability to protect our air and water?
I'll tell you who's all right with that. A recent review of contributions to the Bush campaign from utility industry executives, lawyers and lobbyists showed that 15 individuals were Bush Pioneers - those who raised at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign.
We've seen this radical change in our parks too. Just ask the coalition of more than 100 retired career park service employees who wrote a letter saying that their mission to protect parks' natural resources has been changed to focus on commercial and special-interest use of parks.
These are not small shifts in policy – they are radical changes that reverse a century of American policy designed to protect our natural resources. Here's what America used to be. Yellowstone Park was created in 1872, in part to preserve its forest, mineral and geothermal resources. Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 championed this philosophy, setting aside millions of acres of forest reserves, national monuments and wildlife refuges. This balanced approach, combining use of needed resources in the short term with conservation for future generations – has been honored by Roosevelt on down the line, president after president – until this one.
In preparing this series of speeches, I have noticed a troubling pattern that characterizes the Bush/Cheney Administration's approach to almost all issues. In almost every policy area, the Administration's consistent goal has been to eliminate any constraints on their exercise of raw power, whether by law, regulation, alliance or treaty – and in the process they have in each case caused America to be seen by the other nations of the world as showing disdain for the international community.
In each case they devise their policies with as much secrecy as possible and in close cooperation with the most powerful special interests that have a monetary stake in what happens. In each case the public interest is not only ignored but actively undermined. In each case they devote considerable attention to a clever strategy of deception that appears designed to prevent the American people from discerning what it is they are actually doing. Indeed, they often use Orwellian language to disguise their true purposes. For example, a policy that opens national forests to destructive logging of old-growth trees is labeled "The Healthy Forest Initiative." A policy that vastly increases the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the air is called the "Clear Skies Initiative."
And in case after case, the policy adopted immediately after the inauguration has been the exact opposite of what was pledged to the American people during the election campaign. The promise by candidate Bush to conduct a "humble" foreign policy and avoid any semblance of "nation building" was transformed in the first days of the Bush presidency into a frenzied preparation for a military invasion of Iraq, complete with detailed plans for the remaking of that nation under American occupation.
And in the same way, a solemn promise made to the country that carbon dioxide would be regulated as a polluting greenhouse gas was instantly transformed by the inauguration into a promise to the generators of CO2 that it would not be regulated at all. And a seemingly heartfelt declaration to the American people during the campaign that he genuinely believed that global warming is a real problem which must be addressed was replaced after the Inauguration by a dismissive expression of contempt for careful, peer-reviewed work by EPA scientists setting forth the plain facts on at global warming.
These and other activities make it abundantly clear that the Bush White House represents a new departure in the history of the Presidency. He is so eager to accommodate his supporters and contributors that there seems to be very little that he is not willing to do for them at the expense of the public interest. To mention only one example, we've seen him work tirelessly to allow his friends to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed, it seems at times as if the Bush-Cheney Administration is wholly owned by the coal, oil, utility and mining companies.
While President Bush likes to project an image of strength and courage, the truth is that in the presence of his large financial contributors he is a moral coward – so weak that he seldom if ever says "No" to them on anything – no matter what the public interest might mandate.
The problem is that our world is now confronting a five-alarm fire that calls for bold moral and political leadership from the United States of America.
With such leadership, there is no doubt that we could solve the problem of global warming. After all, we brought down communism, won wars in the Pacific and Europe simultaneously, enacted the Marshall Plan, found a cure for polio and put men on the moon. When we set our sights on a visionary goal and are unified in pursuing it, there is very little we cannot accomplish.
Instead of spending enormous sums of money on an unimaginative and retread effort to make a tiny portion of the Moon habitable for a handful of people, we should focus instead on a massive effort to ensure that the Earth is habitable for future generations.
If we make that choice, the U.S. can strengthen our economy with a new generation of advanced technologies, create millions of good new jobs, and inspire the world with a bold and moral vision of humankind's future.
We are now at a true fork in the road. And in order to take the right path, we must choose the right values and adopt the right perspective.
My friend the late Carl Sagan, whose idea it was to take this picture of the Earth, said this: "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know. Everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds; our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light...
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand...
There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
Editor's Note: This speech was accompanied by a slide presentation. To view the speech in its entirety, or to see the slides, go to the MoveOn website.
Thank you, Lisa, for that warm and generous introduction. Thank you Zack, and thank you all for coming here today.
I want to thank the American Constitution Society for co-sponsoring today's event, and for their hard work and dedication in defending our most basic public values.
And I am especially grateful to Moveon.org, not only for co-sponsoring this event, but also for using 21st Century techniques to breathe new life into our democracy.
For my part, I'm just a "recovering politician" – but I truly believe that some of the issues most important to America's future are ones that all of us should be dealing with.
And perhaps the most important of these issues is the one I want to talk about today: the true relationship between Freedom and Security.
So it seems to me that the logical place to start the discussion is with an accounting of exactly what has happened to civil liberties and security since the vicious attacks against America of September 11, 2001 – and it's important to note at the outset that the Administration and the Congress have brought about many beneficial and needed improvements to make law enforcement and intelligence community efforts more effective against potential terrorists.
But a lot of other changes have taken place that a lot of people don't know about and that come as unwelcome surprises. For example, for the first time in our history, American citizens have been seized by the executive branch of government and put in prison without being charged with a crime, without having the right to a trial, without being able to see a lawyer, and without even being able to contact their families.
President Bush is claiming the unilateral right to do that to any American citizen he believes is an "enemy combatant." Those are the magic words. If the President alone decides that those two words accurately describe someone, then that person can be immediately locked up and held incommunicado for as long as the President wants, with no court having the right to determine whether the facts actually justify his imprisonment.
Now if the President makes a mistake, or is given faulty information by somebody working for him, and locks up the wrong person, then it's almost impossible for that person to prove his innocence – because he can't talk to a lawyer or his family or anyone else and he doesn't even have the right to know what specific crime he is accused of committing. So a constitutional right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness that we used to think of in an old-fashioned way as "inalienable" can now be instantly stripped from any American by the President with no meaningful review by any other branch of government.
How do we feel about that? Is that OK?
Here's another recent change in our civil liberties: Now, if it wants to, the federal government has the right to monitor every website you go to on the internet, keep a list of everyone you send email to or receive email from and everyone who you call on the telephone or who calls you – and they don't even have to show probable cause that you've done anything wrong. Nor do they ever have to report to any court on what they're doing with the information. Moreover, there are precious few safeguards to keep them from reading the content of all your email.
Everybody fine with that?
If so, what about this next change?
For America's first 212 years, it used to be that if the police wanted to search your house, they had to be able to convince an independent judge to give them a search warrant and then (with rare exceptions) they had to go bang on your door and yell, "Open up!" Then, if you didn't quickly open up, they could knock the door down. Also, if they seized anything, they had to leave a list explaining what they had taken. That way, if it was all a terrible mistake (as it sometimes is) you could go and get your stuff back.
But that's all changed now. Starting two years ago, federal agents were given broad new statutory authority by the Patriot Act to "sneak and peak" in non-terrorism cases. They can secretly enter your home with no warning – whether you are there or not – and they can wait for months before telling you they were there. And it doesn't have to have any relationship to terrorism whatsoever. It applies to any garden-variety crime. And the new law makes it very easy to get around the need for a traditional warrant – simply by saying that searching your house might have some connection (even a remote one) to the investigation of some agent of a foreign power. Then they can go to another court, a secret court that more or less has to give them a warrant whenever they ask.
Three weeks ago, in a speech at FBI Headquarters, President Bush went even further and formally proposed that the Attorney General be allowed to authorize subpoenas by administrative order, without the need for a warrant from any court.
What about the right to consult a lawyer if you're arrested? Is that important?
Attorney General Ashcroft has issued regulations authorizing the secret monitoring of attorney-client conversations on his say-so alone – bypassing procedures for obtaining prior judicial review for such monitoring in the rare instances when it was permitted in the past. Now, whoever is in custody has to assume that the government is always listening to consultations between them and their lawyers.
Does it matter if the government listens in on everything you say to your lawyer? Is that Ok?
Or, to take another change – and thanks to the librarians, more people know about this one – the FBI now has the right to go into any library and ask for the records of everybody who has used the library and get a list of who is reading what. Similarly, the FBI can demand all the records of banks, colleges, hotels, hospitals, credit-card companies, and many more kinds of companies. And these changes are only the beginning. Just last week, Attorney General Ashcroft issued brand new guidelines permitting FBI agents to run credit checks and background checks and gather other information about anyone who is "of investigatory interest," – meaning anyone the agent thinks is suspicious – without any evidence of criminal behavior.
So, is that fine with everyone?
Listen to the way Israel's highest court dealt with a similar question when, in 1999, it was asked to balance due process rights against dire threats to the security of its people:
"This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual's liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day they (add to) its strength."
I want to challenge the Bush Administration's implicit assumption that we have to give up many of our traditional freedoms in order to be safe from terrorists.
Because it is simply not true.
In fact, in my opinion, it makes no more sense to launch an assault on our civil liberties as the best way to get at terrorists than it did to launch an invasion of Iraq as the best way to get at Osama Bin Laden.
In both cases, the Administration has attacked the wrong target.
In both cases they have recklessly put our country in grave and unnecessary danger, while avoiding and neglecting obvious and much more important challenges that would actually help to protect the country.
In both cases, the administration has fostered false impressions and misled the nation with superficial, emotional and manipulative presentations that are not worthy of American Democracy.
In both cases they have exploited public fears for partisan political gain and postured themselves as bold defenders of our country while actually weakening not strengthening America.
In both cases, they have used unprecedented secrecy and deception in order to avoid accountability to the Congress, the Courts, the press and the people.
Indeed, this Administration has turned the fundamental presumption of our democracy on its head. A government of and for the people is supposed to be generally open to public scrutiny by the people – while the private information of the people themselves should be routinely protected from government intrusion.
But instead, this Administration is seeking to conduct its work in secret even as it demands broad unfettered access to personal information about American citizens. Under the rubric of protecting national security, they have obtained new powers to gather information from citizens and to keep it secret. Yet at the same time they themselves refuse to disclose information that is highly relevant to the war against terrorism.
They are even arrogantly refusing to provide information about 9/11 that is in their possession to the 9/11 Commission – the lawful investigative body charged with examining not only the performance of the Bush Administration, but also the actions of the prior Administration in which I served. The whole point is to learn all we can about preventing future terrorist attacks,
Two days ago, the Commission was forced to issue a subpoena to the Pentagon, which has – disgracefully – put Secretary Rumsfeld's desire to avoid embarrassment ahead of the nation's need to learn how we can best avoid future terrorist attacks. The Commission also served notice that it will issue a subpoena to the White House if the President continues to withhold information essential to the investigation.
And the White House is also refusing to respond to repeated bipartisan Congressional requests for information about 9/11 – even though the Congress is simply exercising its Constitutional oversight authority. In the words of Senator McCain, "Excessive administration secrecy on issues related to the September 11 attacks feeds conspiracy theories and reduces the public's confidence in government."
In a revealing move, just three days ago, the White House asked the Republican leadership of the Senate to shut down the Intelligence Committee's investigation of 9/11 based on a trivial political dispute. Apparently the President is anxious to keep the Congress from seeing what are said to have been clear, strong and explicit warnings directly to him a few weeks before 9/11 that terrorists were planning to hijack commercial airliners and use them to attack us.
Astonishingly, the Republican Senate leadership quickly complied with the President's request. Such obedience and complicity in what looks like a cover-up from the majority party in a separate and supposedly co-equal branch of government makes it seem like a very long time ago when a Republican Attorney General and his deputy resigned rather than comply with an order to fire the special prosecutor investigating Richard Nixon.
In an even more brazen move, more than two years after they rounded up over 1,200 individuals of Arab descent, they still refuse to release the names of the individuals they detained, even though virtually every one of those arrested has been "cleared" by the FBI of any connection to terrorism and there is absolutely no national security justification for keeping the names secret. Yet at the same time, White House officials themselves leaked the name of a CIA operative serving the country, in clear violation of the law, in an effort to get at her husband, who had angered them by disclosing that the President had relied on forged evidence in his state of the union address as part of his effort to convince the country that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of building nuclear weapons.
And even as they claim the right to see the private bank records of every American, they are adopting a new policy on the Freedom of Information Act that actively encourages federal agencies to fully consider all potential reasons for non-disclosure regardless of whether the disclosure would be harmful. In other words, the federal government will now actively resist complying with ANY request for information.
Moreover, they have established a new exemption that enables them to refuse the release to the press and the public of important health, safety and environmental information submitted to the government by businesses – merely by calling it "critical infrastructure."
By closely guarding information about their own behavior, they are dismantling a fundamental element of our system of checks and balances. Because so long as the government's actions are secret, they cannot be held accountable. A government for the people and by the people must be transparent to the people.
The administration is justifying the collection of all this information by saying in effect that it will make us safer to have it. But it is not the kind of information that would have been of much help in preventing 9/11. However, there was in fact a great deal of specific information that WAS available prior to 9/11 that probably could have been used to prevent the tragedy. A recent analysis by the Merkle foundation, (working with data from a software company that received venture capital from a CIA-sponsored firm) demonstrates this point in a startling way:
"In late August 2001, Nawaq Alhamzi and Khalid Al-Midhar bought tickets to fly on American Airlines Flight 77 (which was flown into the Pentagon). They bought the tickets using their real names. Both names were then on a State Department/INS watch list called TIPOFF. Both men were sought by the FBI and CIA as suspected terrorists, in part because they had been observed at a terrorist meeting in Malaysia. These two passenger names would have been exact matches when checked against the TIPOFF list. But that would only have been the first step. Further data checks could then have begun. Checking for common addresses (address information is widely available, including on the internet), analysts would have discovered that Salem Al-Hazmi (who also bought a seat on American 77) used the same address as Nawaq Alhazmi. More importantly, they could have discovered that Mohamed Atta (American 11, North Tower of the World Trade Center) and Marwan Al-Shehhi (United 175, South Tower of the World Trade Center) used the same address as Khalid Al-Midhar. Checking for identical frequent flier numbers, analysts would have discovered that Majed Moqed (American 77) used the same number as Al-Midhar. With Mohamed Atta now also identified as a possible associate of the wanted terrorist, Al-Midhar, analysts could have added Atta's phone numbers (also publicly available information) to their checklist. By doing so they would have identified five other hijackers (Fayez Ahmed, Mohand Alshehri, Wail Alsheri, and Abdulaziz Alomari). Closer to September 11, a further check of passenger lists against a more innocuous INS watch list (for expired visas) would have identified Ahmed Alghandi. Through him, the same sort of relatively simple correlations could have led to identifying the remaining hijackers, who boarded United 93 (which crashed in Pennsylvania)."
In addition, Al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhamzi, the two who were on the terrorist watch list, rented an apartment in San Diego under their own names and were listed, again under their own names, in the San Diego phone book while the FBI was searching for them.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but what is needed is better and timelier analysis. Simply piling up more raw data that is almost entirely irrelevant is not only not going to help, it may actually hurt the cause. As one FBI agent said privately of Ashcroft: "We're looking for a needle in a haystack here and he (Ashcroft) is just piling on more hay."
In other words, the mass collecting of personal data on hundreds of millions of people actually makes it more difficult to protect the nation against terrorists, so they ought to cut most of it out.
And meanwhile, the real story is that while the administration manages to convey the impression that it is doing everything possible to protect America, in reality it has seriously neglected most of the measures that it could have taken to really make our country safer.
For example, there is still no serious strategy for domestic security that protects critical infrastructure such as electric power lines, gas pipelines, nuclear facilities, ports, chemical plants and the like.
They're still not checking incoming cargo carriers for radiation. They're still skimping on protection of certain nuclear weapons storage facilities. They're still not hardening critical facilities that must never be soft targets for terrorists. They're still not investing in the translators and analysts we need to counter the growing terror threat.
The administration is still not investing in local government training and infrastructures where they could make the biggest difference. The first responder community is still being shortchanged. In many cases, fire and police still don't have the communications equipment to talk to each other. The CDC and local hospitals are still nowhere close to being ready for a biological weapons attack.
The administration has still failed to address the fundamental disorganization and rivalries of our law enforcement, intelligence and investigative agencies. In particular, the critical FBI-CIA coordination, while finally improved at the top, still remains dysfunctional in the trenches.
The constant violations of civil liberties promote the false impression that these violations are necessary in order to take every precaution against another terrorist attack. But the simple truth is that the vast majority of the violations have not benefited our security at all; to the contrary, they hurt our security.
And the treatment of immigrants was probably the worst example. This mass mistreatment actually hurt our security in a number of important ways.
But first, let's be clear about what happened: this was little more than a cheap and cruel political stunt by John Ashcroft. More than 99% of the mostly Arab-background men who were rounded up had merely overstayed their visas or committed some other minor offense as they tried to pursue the American dream just like most immigrants. But they were used as extras in the Administration's effort to give the impression that they had caught a large number of bad guys. And many of them were treated horribly and abusively.
Consider this example reported in depth by Anthony Lewis:
"Anser Mehmood, a Pakistani who had overstayed his visa, was arrested in New York on October 3, 2001. The next day he was briefly questioned by FBI agents, who said they had no further interest in him. Then he was shackled in handcuffs, leg irons, and a belly chain and taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Guards there put two more sets of handcuffs on him and another set of leg irons. One threw Mehmood against a wall. The guards forced him to run down a long ramp, the irons cutting into his wrists and ankles. The physical abuse was mixed with verbal taunts.
"After two weeks Mehmood was allowed to make a telephone call to his wife. She was not at home and Mehmood was told that he would have to wait six weeks to try again. He first saw her, on a visit, three months after his arrest. All that time he was kept in a windowless cell, in solitary confinement, with two overhead fluorescent lights on all the time. In the end he was charged with using an invalid Social Security card. He was deported in May 2002, nearly eight months after his arrest.
The faith tradition I share with Ashcroft includes this teaching from Jesus: "whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me."
And make no mistake: the disgraceful treatment suffered by many of these vulnerable immigrants at the hands of the administration has created deep resentments and hurt the cooperation desperately needed from immigrant communities in the U.S. and from the Security Services of other countries.
Second, these gross violations of their rights have seriously damaged U.S. moral authority and goodwill around the world, and delegitimized U.S. efforts to continue promoting Human Rights around the world. As one analyst put it, "We used to set the standard; now we have lowered the bar." And our moral authority is, after all, our greatest source of enduring strength in the world.
And the handling of prisoners at Guantanomo has been particularly harmful to America's image. Even England and Australia have criticized our departure from international law and the Geneva Convention. Sec. Rumsfeld's handling of the captives there has been about as thoughtful as his "postwar" plan for Iraq.
So the mass violations of civil liberties have hurt rather than helped. But there is yet another reason for urgency in stopping what this administration is doing. Where Civil Liberties are concerned, they have taken us much farther down the road toward an intrusive, "Big Brother"-style government – toward the dangers prophesized by George Orwell in his book "1984" – than anyone ever thought would be possible in the United States of America.
And they have done it primarily by heightening and exploiting public anxieties and apprehensions. Rather than leading with a call to courage, this Administration has chosen to lead us by inciting fear.
Almost eighty years ago, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote "Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. . . . They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty." Those who won our independence, Brandeis asserted, understood that "courage [is] the secret of liberty" and "fear [only] breeds repression."
Rather than defending our freedoms, this Administration has sought to abandon them. Rather than accepting our traditions of openness and accountability, this Administration has opted to rule by secrecy and unquestioned authority. Instead, its assaults on our core democratic principles have only left us less free and less secure.
Throughout American history, what we now call Civil Liberties have often been abused and limited during times of war and perceived threats to security. The best known instances include the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798-1800, the brief suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the extreme abuses during World War I and the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids immediately after the war, the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the excesses of the FBI and CIA during the Vietnam War and social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But in each of these cases, the nation has recovered its equilibrium when the war ended and absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.
There are reasons for concern this time around that what we are experiencing may no longer be the first half of a recurring cycle but rather, the beginning of something new. For one thing, 2this war is predicted by the administration to "last for the rest of our lives." Others have expressed the view that over time it will begin to resemble the "war" against drugs – that is, that it will become a more or less permanent struggle that occupies a significant part of our law enforcement and security agenda from now on. If that is the case, then when – if ever – does this encroachment on our freedoms die a natural death?
It is important to remember that throughout history, the loss of civil liberties by individuals and the aggregation of too much unchecked power in the executive go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin.
A second reason to worry that what we are witnessing is a discontinuity and not another turn of the recurring cycle is that the new technologies of surveillance – long anticipated by novelists like Orwell and other prophets of the "Police State" – are now more widespread than they have ever been.
And they do have the potential for shifting the balance of power between the apparatus of the state and the freedom of the individual in ways both subtle and profound.
Moreover, these technologies are being widely used not only by the government but also by corporations and other private entities. And that is relevant to an assessment of the new requirements in the Patriot Act for so many corporations – especially in the finance industries – to prepare millions of reports annually for the government on suspicious activities by their customers. It is also relevant to the new flexibility corporations have been given to share information with one another about their customers.
The third reason for concern is that the threat of more terror strikes is all too real. And the potential use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups does create a new practical imperative for the speedy exercise of discretionary power by the executive branch – just as the emergence of nuclear weapons and ICBMs created a new practical imperative in the Cold War that altered the balance of war-making responsibility between Congress and the President.
But President Bush has stretched this new practical imperative beyond what is healthy for our democracy. Indeed, one of the ways he has tried to maximize his power within the American system has been by constantly emphasizing his role as Commander-in-Chief, far more than any previous President – assuming it as often and as visibly as he can, and bringing it into the domestic arena and conflating it with his other roles: as head of government and head of state – and especially with his political role as head of the Republican Party.
Indeed, the most worrisome new factor, in my view, is the aggressive ideological approach of the current administration, which seems determined to use fear as a political tool to consolidate its power and to escape any accountability for its use. Just as unilateralism and dominance are the guiding principles of their disastrous approach to international relations, they are also the guiding impulses of the administration's approach to domestic politics. They are impatient with any constraints on the exercise of power overseas – whether from our allies, the UN, or international law. And in the same way, they are impatient with any obstacles to their use of power at home – whether from Congress, the Courts, the press, or the rule of law.
Ashcroft has also authorized FBI agents to attend church meetings, rallies, political meetings and any other citizen activity open to the public simply on the agents' own initiative, reversing a decades old policy that required justification to supervisors that such infiltrations has a provable connection to a legitimate investigation;
They have even taken steps that seem to be clearly aimed at stifling dissent. The Bush Justice Department has recently begun a highly disturbing criminal prosecution of the environmental group Greenpeace because of a non-violent direct action protest against what Greenpeace claimed was the illegal importation of endangered mahogany from the Amazon. Independent legal experts and historians have said that the prosecution – under an obscure and bizarre 1872 law against "sailor-mongering" – appears to be aimed at inhibiting Greenpeace's First Amendment activities.
And at the same time they are breaking new ground by prosecuting Greenpeace, the Bush Administration announced just a few days ago that it is dropping the investigations of 50 power plants for violating the Clean Air Act – a move that Sen. Chuck Schumer said, "basically announced to the power industry that it can now pollute with impunity."
The politicization of law enforcement in this administration is part of their larger agenda to roll back the changes in government policy brought about by the New Deal and the Progressive Movement. Toward that end, they are cutting back on Civil Rights enforcement, Women's Rights, progressive taxation, the estate tax, access to the courts, Medicare, and much more. And they approach every issue as a partisan fight to the finish, even in the areas of national security and terror.
Instead of trying to make the "War on Terrorism" a bipartisan cause, the Bush White House has consistently tried to exploit it for partisan advantage. The President goes to war verbally against terrorists in virtually every campaign speech and fundraising dinner for his political party. It is his main political theme. Democratic candidates like Max Cleland in Georgia were labeled unpatriotic for voting differently from the White House on obscure amendments to the Homeland Security Bill.
When the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, was embroiled in an effort to pick up more congressional seats in Texas by forcing a highly unusual redistricting vote in the state senate, he was able to track down Democratic legislators who fled the state to prevent a quorum (and thus prevent the vote) by enlisting the help of President Bush's new Department of Homeland Security, as many as 13 employees of the Federal Aviation Administration who conducted an eight-hour search, and at least one FBI agent (though several other agents who were asked to help refused to do so.)
By locating the Democrats quickly with the technology put in place for tracking terrorists, the Republicans were able to succeed in focusing public pressure on the weakest of the Senators and forced passage of their new political redistricting plan. Now, thanks in part to the efforts of three different federal agencies, Bush and DeLay are celebrating the gain of up to seven new Republican congressional seats in the next Congress.
The White House timing for its big push for a vote in Congress on going to war with Iraq also happened to coincide exactly with the start of the fall election campaign in September a year ago. The President's chief of staff said the timing was chosen because "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
White House political advisor Karl Rove advised Republican candidates that their best political strategy was to "run on the war". And as soon as the troops began to mobilize, the Republican National Committee distributed yard signs throughout America saying, "I support President Bush and the troops" – as if they were one and the same.
This persistent effort to politicize the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism for partisan advantage is obviously harmful to the prospects for bipartisan support of the nation's security policies. By sharp contrast, consider the different approach that was taken by Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the terrible days of October 1943 when in the midst of World War II, he faced a controversy with the potential to divide his bipartisan coalition. He said, "What holds us together is the prosecution of the war. No...man has been asked to give up his convictions. That would be indecent and improper. We are held together by something outside, which rivets our attention. The principle that we work on is, 'Everything for the war, whether controversial or not, and nothing controversial that is not bona fide for the war.' That is our position. We must also be careful that a pretext is not made of war needs to introduce far-reaching social or political changes by a side wind."
Yet that is exactly what the Bush Administration is attempting to do – to use the war against terrorism for partisan advantage and to introduce far reaching controversial changes in social policy by a "side wind," in an effort to consolidate its political power.
It is an approach that is deeply antithetical to the American spirit. Respect for our President is important. But so is respect for our people. Our founders knew – and our history has proven – that freedom is best guaranteed by a separation of powers into co-equal branches of government within a system of checks and balances – to prevent the unhealthy concentration of too much power in the hands of any one person or group.
Our framers were also keenly aware that the history of the world proves that Republics are fragile. The very hour of America's birth in Philadelphia, when Benjamin Franklin was asked, "What have we got? A Republic or a Monarchy?" he cautiously replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it."
And even in the midst of our greatest testing, Lincoln knew that our fate was tied to the larger question of whether ANY nation so conceived could long endure.
This Administration simply does not seem to agree that the challenge of preserving democratic freedom cannot be met by surrendering core American values. Incredibly, this Administration has attempted to compromise the most precious rights that America has stood for all over the world for more than 200 years: due process, equal treatment under the law, the dignity of the individual, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from promiscuous government surveillance. And in the name of security, this Administration has attempted to relegate the Congress and the Courts to the sidelines and replace our democratic system of checks and balances with an unaccountable Executive. And all the while, it has constantly angled for new ways to exploit the sense of crisis for partisan gain and political dominance. How dare they!
Years ago, during World War II, one of our most eloquent Supreme Court Justices, Robert Jackson, wrote that the President should be given the "widest latitude" in wartime, but he warned against the "loose and irresponsible invocation of war as an excuse for discharging the Executive Branch from the rules of law that govern our Republic in times of peace. No penance would ever expiate the sin against free government," Jackson said, "of holding that a President can escape control of executive powers by law through assuming his military role. Our government has ample authority under the Constitution to take those steps that are genuinely necessary for our security. At the same time, our system demands that government act only on the basis of measures that have been the subject of open and thoughtful debate in Congress and among the American people, and that invasions of the liberty or equal dignity of any individual are subject to review by courts which are open to those affected and independent of the government which is curtailing their freedom."
So what should be done? Well, to begin with, our country ought to find a way to immediately stop its policy of indefinitely detaining American citizens without charges and without a judicial determination that their detention is proper.
Such a course of conduct is incompatible with American traditions and values, with sacred principles of due process of law and separation of powers.
It is no accident that our Constitution requires in criminal prosecutions a "speedy and public trial." The principles of liberty and the accountability of government, at the heart of what makes America unique, require no less. The Bush Administration's treatment of American citizens it calls "enemy combatants" is nothing short of un-American.
Second, foreign citizens held in Guantanamo should be given hearings to determine their status provided for under Article V of the Geneva Convention, a hearing that the United States has given those captured in every war until this one, including Vietnam and the Gulf War.
If we don't provide this, how can we expect American soldiers captured overseas to be treated with equal respect? We owe this to our sons and daughters who fight to defend freedom in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world.
Third, the President should seek congressional authorization for the military commissions he says he intends to use instead of civilian courts to try some of those who are charged with violating the laws of war. Military commissions are exceptional in American law and they present unique dangers. The prosecutor and the judge both work for the same man, the President of the United States. Such commissions may be appropriate in time of war, but they must be authorized by Congress, as they were in World War II, and Congress must delineate the scope of their authority. Review of their decisions must be available in a civilian court, at least the Supreme Court, as it was in World War II.
Next, our nation's greatness is measured by how we treat those who are the most vulnerable. Noncitizens who the government seeks to detain should be entitled to some basic rights. The administration must stop abusing the material witness statute. That statute was designed to hold witnesses briefly before they are called to testify before a grand jury. It has been misused by this administration as a pretext for indefinite detention without charge. That is simply not right.
Finally, I have studied the Patriot Act and have found that along with its many excesses, it contains a few needed changes in the law. And it is certainly true that many of the worst abuses of due process and civil liberties that are now occurring are taking place under the color of laws and executive orders other than the Patriot Act.
Nevertheless, I believe the Patriot Act has turned out to be, on balance, a terrible mistake, and that it became a kind of Tonkin Gulf Resolution conferring Congress' blessing for this President's assault on civil liberties. Therefore, I believe strongly that the few good features of this law should be passed again in a new, smaller law – but that the Patriot Act must be repealed.
As John Adams wrote in 1780, ours is a government of laws and not of men. What is at stake today is that defining principle of our nation, and thus the very nature of America. As the Supreme Court has written, "Our Constitution is a covenant running from the first generation of Americans to us and then to future generations." The Constitution includes no wartime exception, though its Framers knew well the reality of war. And, as Justice Holmes reminded us shortly after World War I, the Constitution's principles only have value if we apply them in the difficult times as well as those where it matters less.
The question before us could be of no greater moment: will we continue to live as a people under the rule of law as embodied in our Constitution? Or will we fail future generations, by leaving them a Constitution far diminished from the charter of liberty we have inherited from our forebears? Our choice is clear.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for your investment of time and energy in gathering here today. I would especially like to thank Moveon.org for sponsoring this event, and the NYU College Democrats for co-sponsoring the speech and for hosting us.
Some of you may remember that my last formal public address on these topics was delivered in San Francisco, a little less than a year ago, when I argued that the President's case for urgent, unilateral, pre-emptive war in Iraq was less than convincing and needed to be challenged more effectively by the Congress.
In light of developments since then, you might assume that my purpose today is to revisit the manner in which we were led into war. To some extent, that will be the case – but only as part of a larger theme that I feel should now be explored on an urgent basis.
The direction in which our nation is being led is deeply troubling to me – not only in Iraq but also here at home on economic policy, social policy and environmental policy.
Millions of Americans now share a feeling that something pretty basic has gone wrong in our country and that some important American values are being placed at risk. And they want to set it right.
The way we went to war in Iraq illustrates this larger problem. Normally, we Americans lay the facts on the table, talk through the choices before us and make a decision. But that didn't really happen with this war – not the way it should have. And as a result, too many of our soldiers are paying the highest price, for the strategic miscalculations, serious misjudgments, and historic mistakes that have put them and our nation in harm's way.
I'm convinced that one of the reasons that we didn't have a better public debate before the Iraq War started is because so many of the impressions that the majority of the country had back then turn out to have been completely wrong. Leaving aside for the moment the question of how these false impressions got into the public's mind, it might be healthy to take a hard look at the ones we now know were wrong and clear the air so that we can better see exactly where we are now and what changes might need to be made.
In any case, what we now know to have been false impressions include the following:
- Saddam Hussein was partly responsible for the attack against us on September 11th, 2001, so a good way to respond to that attack would be to invade his country and forcibly remove him from power.
- Saddam was working closely with Osama Bin Laden and was actively supporting members of the Al Qaeda terrorist group, giving them weapons and money and bases and training, so launching a war against Iraq would be a good way to stop Al Qaeda from attacking us again.
- Saddam was about to give the terrorists poison gas and deadly germs that he had made into weapons which they could use to kill millions of Americans. Therefore common sense alone dictated that we should send our military into Iraq in order to protect our loved ones and ourselves against a grave threat.
- Saddam was on the verge of building nuclear bombs and giving them to the terrorists. And since the only thing preventing Saddam from acquiring a nuclear arsenal was access to enriched uranium, once our spies found out that he had bought the enrichment technology he needed and was actively trying to buy uranium from Africa, we had very little time left. Therefore it seemed imperative during last Fall's election campaign to set aside less urgent issues like the economy and instead focus on the congressional resolution approving war against Iraq.
- Our GI's would be welcomed with open arms by cheering Iraqis who would help them quickly establish public safety, free markets and Representative Democracy, so there wouldn't be that much risk that US soldiers would get bogged down in a guerrilla war.
- Even though the rest of the world was mostly opposed to the war, they would quickly fall in line after we won and then contribute lots of money and soldiers to help out, so there wouldn't be that much risk that US taxpayers would get stuck with a huge bill.
Now, of course, everybody knows that every single one of these impressions was just dead wrong.
For example, according to the just-released Congressional investigation, Saddam had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks of Sept. 11. Therefore, whatever other goals it served – and it did serve some other goals – the decision to invade Iraq made no sense as a way of exacting revenge for 9/11. To the contrary, the US pulled significant intelligence resources out of Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to get ready for the rushed invasion of Iraq and that disrupted the search for Osama at a critical time. And the indifference we showed to the rest of the world's opinion in the process undermined the global cooperation we need to win the war against terrorism.
In the same way, the evidence now shows clearly that Saddam did not want to work with Osama Bin Laden at all, much less give him weapons of mass destruction. So our invasion of Iraq had no effect on Al Qaeda, other than to boost their recruiting efforts.
And on the nuclear issue of course, it turned out that those documents were actually forged by somebody – though we don't know who.
As for the cheering Iraqi crowds we anticipated, unfortunately, that didn't pan out either, so now our troops are in an ugly and dangerous situation.
Moreover, the rest of the world certainly isn't jumping in to help out very much the way we expected, so US taxpayers are now having to spend a billion dollars a week.
In other words, when you put it all together, it was just one mistaken impression after another. Lots of them.
And it's not just in foreign policy. The same thing has been happening in economic policy, where we've also got another huge and threatening mess on our hands. I'm convinced that one reason we've had so many nasty surprises in our economy is that the country somehow got lots of false impressions about what we could expect from the big tax cuts that were enacted, including:
- The tax cuts would unleash a lot of new investment that would create lots of new jobs.
- We wouldn't have to worry about a return to big budget deficits – because all the new growth in the economy caused by the tax cuts would lead to a lot of new revenue.
- Most of the benefits would go to average middle-income families, not to the wealthy, as some partisans claimed.
Unfortunately, here too, every single one of these impressions turned out to be wrong. Instead of creating jobs, for example, we are losing millions of jobs – net losses for three years in a row. That hasn't happened since the Great Depression. As I've noted before, I was the first one laid off.
And it turns out that most of the benefits actually are going to the highest income Americans, who unfortunately are the least likely group to spend money in ways that create jobs during times when the economy is weak and unemployment is rising.
And of course the budget deficits are already the biggest ever – with the worst still due to hit us. As a percentage of our economy, we've had bigger ones – but these are by far the most dangerous we've ever had for two reasons: first, they're not temporary; they're structural and long-term; second, they are going to get even bigger just at the time when the big baby-boomer retirement surge starts.
Moreover, the global capital markets have begun to recognize the unprecedented size of this emerging fiscal catastrophe. In truth, the current Executive Branch of the U.S. Government is radically different from any since the McKinley Administration 100 years ago.
The 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, George Akerlof, went even further last week in Germany when he told Der Spiegel, "This is the worst government the US has ever had in its more than 200 years of history...This is not normal government policy." In describing the impact of the Bush policies on America's future, Akerloff added, "What we have here is a form of looting."
Ominously, the capital markets have just pushed U.S. long-term mortgage rates higher soon after the Federal Reserve Board once again reduced discount rates. Monetary policy loses some of its potency when fiscal policy comes unglued. And after three years of rate cuts in a row, Alan Greenspan and his colleagues simply don't have much room left for further reductions.
This situation is particularly dangerous right now for several reasons: first because home-buying fueled by low rates (along with car-buying, also a rate-sensitive industry) have been just about the only reliable engines pulling the economy forward; second, because so many Americans now have Variable Rate Mortgages; and third, because average personal debt is now at an all-time high – a lot of Americans are living on the edge.
It seems obvious that big and important issues like the Bush economic policy and the first Pre-emptive War in U.S. history should have been debated more thoroughly in the Congress, covered more extensively in the news media, and better presented to the American people before our nation made such fateful choices. But that didn't happen, and in both cases, reality is turning out to be very different from the impression that was given when the votes – and the die – were cast.
Since this curious mismatch between myth and reality has suddenly become commonplace and is causing such extreme difficulty for the nation's ability to make good choices about our future, maybe it is time to focus on how in the world we could have gotten so many false impressions in such a short period of time.
At first, I thought maybe the President's advisers were a big part of the problem. Last fall, in a speech on economic policy at the Brookings Institution, I called on the President to get rid of his whole economic team and pick a new group. And a few weeks later, damned if he didn't do just that - and at least one of the new advisers had written eloquently about the very problems in the Bush economic policy that I was calling upon the President to fix.
But now, a year later, we still have the same bad economic policies and the problems have, if anything, gotten worse. So obviously I was wrong: changing all the president's advisers didn't work as a way of changing the policy.
I remembered all that last month when everybody was looking for who ought to be held responsible for the false statements in the President's State of the Union Address. And I've just about concluded that the real problem may be the President himself and that next year we ought to fire him and get a new one.
But whether you agree with that conclusion or not, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican – or an Independent, a Libertarian, a Green or a Mugwump – you've got a big stake in making sure that Representative Democracy works the way it is supposed to. And today, it just isn't working very well. We all need to figure out how to fix it because we simply cannot keep on making such bad decisions on the basis of false impressions and mistaken assumptions.
Earlier, I mentioned the feeling many have that something basic has gone wrong. Whatever it is, I think it has a lot to do with the way we seek the truth and try in good faith to use facts as the basis for debates about our future – allowing for the unavoidable tendency we all have to get swept up in our enthusiasms.
That last point is worth highlighting. Robust debate in a democracy will almost always involve occasional rhetorical excesses and leaps of faith, and we're all used to that. I've even been guilty of it myself on occasion. But there is a big difference between that and a systematic effort to manipulate facts in service to a totalistic ideology that is felt to be more important than the mandates of basic honesty.
Unfortunately, I think it is no longer possible to avoid the conclusion that what the country is dealing with in the Bush Presidency is the latter. That is really the nub of the problem – the common source for most of the false impressions that have been frustrating the normal and healthy workings of our democracy.
Americans have always believed that we the people have a right to know the truth and that the truth will set us free. The very idea of self-government depends upon honest and open debate as the preferred method for pursuing the truth – and a shared respect for the Rule of Reason as the best way to establish the truth.
The Bush Administration routinely shows disrespect for that whole basic process, and I think it's partly because they feel as if they already know the truth and aren't very curious to learn about any facts that might contradict it. They and the members of groups that belong to their ideological coalition are true believers in each other's agendas.
There are at least a couple of problems with this approach:
First, powerful and wealthy groups and individuals who work their way into the inner circle – with political support or large campaign contributions – are able to add their own narrow special interests to the list of favored goals without having them weighed against the public interest or subjected to the rule of reason. And the greater the conflict between what they want and what's good for the rest of us, the greater incentive they have to bypass the normal procedures and keep it secret.
That's what happened, for example, when Vice President Cheney invited all of those oil and gas industry executives to meet in secret sessions with him and his staff to put their wish lists into the administration's legislative package in early 2001.
That group wanted to get rid of the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming, of course, and the Administration pulled out of it first thing. The list of people who helped write our nation's new environmental and energy policies is still secret, and the Vice President won't say whether or not his former company, Halliburton, was included. But of course, as practically everybody in the world knows, Halliburton was given a huge open-ended contract to take over and run the Iraqi oil fields – without having to bid against any other companies.
Secondly, when leaders make up their minds on a policy without ever having to answer hard questions about whether or not it's good or bad for the American people as a whole, they can pretty quickly get into situations where it's really uncomfortable for them to defend what they've done with simple and truthful explanations. That's when they're tempted to fuzz up the facts and create false impressions. And when other facts start to come out that undermine the impression they're trying to maintain, they have a big incentive to try to keep the truth bottled up if – they can – or distort it.
For example, a couple of weeks ago, the White House ordered its own EPA to strip important scientific information about the dangers of global warming out of a public report. Instead, the White House substituted information that was partly paid for by the American Petroleum Institute. This week, analysts at the Treasury Department told a reporter that they're now being routinely ordered to change their best analysis of what the consequences of the Bush tax laws are likely to be for the average person.
Here is the pattern that I see: the President's mishandling of and selective use of the best evidence available on the threat posed by Iraq is pretty much the same as the way he intentionally distorted the best available evidence on climate change, and rejected the best available evidence on the threat posed to America's economy by his tax and budget proposals.
In each case, the President seems to have been pursuing policies chosen in advance of the facts – policies designed to benefit friends and supporters – and has used tactics that deprived the American people of any opportunity to effectively subject his arguments to the kind of informed scrutiny that is essential in our system of checks and balances.
The administration has developed a highly effective propaganda machine to imbed in the public mind mythologies that grow out of the one central doctrine that all of the special interests agree on, which – in its purest form – is that government is very bad and should be done away with as much as possible – except the parts of it that redirect money through big contracts to industries that have won their way into the inner circle.
For the same reasons they push the impression that government is bad, they also promote the myth that there really is no such thing as the public interest. What's important to them is private interests. And what they really mean is that those who have a lot of wealth should be left alone, rather than be called upon to reinvest in society through taxes.
Perhaps the biggest false impression of all lies in the hidden social objectives of this Administration that are advertised with the phrase "compassionate conservatism" – which they claim is a new departure with substantive meaning. But in reality, to be compassionate is meaningless, if compassion is limited to the mere awareness of the suffering of others. The test of compassion is action. What the administration offers with one hand is the rhetoric of compassion; what it takes away with the other hand are the financial resources necessary to make compassion something more than an empty and fading impression.
Maybe one reason that false impressions have a played a bigger role than they should is that both Congress and the news media have been less vigilant and exacting than they should have been in the way they have tried to hold the Administration accountable.
Whenever both houses of Congress are controlled by the President's party, there is a danger of passivity and a temptation for the legislative branch to abdicate its constitutional role. If the party in question is unusually fierce in demanding ideological uniformity and obedience, then this problem can become even worse and prevent the Congress from properly exercising oversight. Under these circumstances, the majority party in the Congress has a special obligation to the people to permit full Congressional inquiry and oversight rather than to constantly frustrate and prevent it.
Whatever the reasons for the recent failures to hold the President properly accountable, America has a compelling need to quickly breathe new life into our founders' system of checks and balances – because some extremely important choices about our future are going to be made shortly, and it is imperative that we avoid basing them on more false impressions.
One thing the President could do to facilitate the restoration of checks and balances is to stop blocking reasonable efforts from the Congress to play its rightful role. For example, he could order his appointees to cooperate fully with the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, headed by former Republican Governor Tom Kean. And he should let them examine how the White House handled the warnings that are said to have been given to the President by the intelligence community.
Two years ago yesterday, for example, according to the Wall Street Journal, the President was apparently advised in specific language that Al Qaeda was going to hijack some airplanes to conduct a terrorist strike inside the U.S.
I understand his concern about people knowing exactly what he read in the privacy of the Oval Office, and there is a legitimate reason for treating such memos to the President with care. But that concern has to be balanced against the national interest in improving the way America deals with such information. And the apparently chaotic procedures that were used to handle the forged nuclear documents from Niger certainly show evidence that there is room for improvement in the way the White House is dealing with intelligence memos. Along with other members of the previous administration, I certainly want the commission to have access to any and all documents sent to the White House while we were there that have any bearing on this issue. And President Bush should let the commission see the ones that he read too.
After all, this President has claimed the right for his executive branch to send his assistants into every public library in America and secretly monitor what the rest of us are reading. That's been the law ever since the Patriot Act was enacted. If we have to put up with such a broad and extreme invasion of our privacy rights in the name of terrorism prevention, surely he can find a way to let this National Commission know how he and his staff handled a highly specific warning of terrorism just 36 days before 9/11.
And speaking of the Patriot Act, the president ought to reign in John Ashcroft and stop the gross abuses of civil rights that twice have been documented by his own Inspector General. And while he's at it, he needs to reign in Donald Rumsfeld and get rid of that DoD "Total Information Awareness" program that's right out of George Orwell's 1984.
The administration hastened from the beginning to persuade us that defending America against terror cannot be done without seriously abridging the protections of the Constitution for American citizens, up to and including an asserted right to place them in a form of limbo totally beyond the authority of our courts. And that view is both wrong and fundamentally un-American.
But the most urgent need for new oversight of the Executive Branch and the restoration of checks and balances is in the realm of our security, where the Administration is asking that we accept a whole cluster of new myths:
For example, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was an effort to strike a bargain between states possessing nuclear weapons and all others who had pledged to refrain from developing them. This administration has rejected it and now, incredibly, wants to embark on a new program to build a brand new generation of smaller (and it hopes, more usable) nuclear bombs. In my opinion, this would be true madness – and the point of no return to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – even as we and our allies are trying to prevent a nuclear testing breakout by North Korea and Iran.
Similarly, the Kyoto treaty is an historic effort to strike a grand bargain between free-market capitalism and the protection of the global environment, now gravely threatened by rapidly accelerating warming of the Earth's atmosphere and the consequent disruption of climate patterns that have persisted throughout the entire history of civilization as we know it. This administration has tried to protect the oil and coal industries from any restrictions at all – though Kyoto may become legally effective for global relations even without U.S. participation.
Ironically, the principal cause of global warming is our civilization's addiction to burning massive quantities carbon-based fuels, including principally oil – the most important source of which is the Persian Gulf, where our soldiers have been sent for the second war in a dozen years – at least partly to ensure our continued access to oil.
We need to face the fact that our dangerous and unsustainable consumption of oil from a highly unstable part of the world is similar in its consequences to all other addictions. As it becomes worse, the consequences get more severe and you have to pay the dealer more.
And by now, it is obvious to most Americans that we have had one too many wars in the Persian Gulf and that we need an urgent effort to develop environmentally sustainable substitutes for fossil fuels and a truly international effort to stabilize the Persian Gulf and rebuild Iraq.
The removal of Saddam from power is a positive accomplishment in its own right for which the President deserves credit, just as he deserves credit for removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. But in the case of Iraq, we have suffered enormous collateral damage because of the manner in which the Administration went about the invasion. And in both cases, the aftermath has been badly mishandled.
The administration is now trying to give the impression that it is in favor of NATO and UN participation in such an effort. But it is not willing to pay the necessary price, which is support of a new UN Resolution and genuine sharing of control inside Iraq.
If the 21st century is to be well started, we need a national agenda that is worked out in concert with the people, a healing agenda that is built on a true national consensus. Millions of Americans got the impression that George W. Bush wanted to be a "healer, not a divider", a president devoted first and foremost to "honor and integrity." Yet far from uniting the people, the president's ideologically narrow agenda has seriously divided America. His most partisan supporters have launched a kind of 'civil cold war' against those with whom they disagree.
And as for honor and integrity, let me say this: we know what that was all about, but hear me well, not as a candidate for any office, but as an American citizen who loves my country:
For eight years, the Clinton-Gore Administration gave this nation honest budget numbers; an economic plan with integrity that rescued the nation from debt and stagnation; honest advocacy for the environment; real compassion for the poor; a strengthening of our military – as recently proven – and a foreign policy whose purposes were elevated, candidly presented and courageously pursued, in the face of scorched-earth tactics by the opposition. That is also a form of honor and integrity, and not every administration in recent memory has displayed it.
So I would say to those who have found the issue of honor and integrity so useful as a political tool, that the people are also looking for these virtues in the execution of public policy on their behalf, and will judge whether they are present or absent.
I am proud that my party has candidates for president committed to those values. I admire the effort and skill they are putting into their campaigns. I am not going to join them, but later in the political cycle I will endorse one of them, because I believe that we must stand for a future in which the United States will again be feared only by its enemies; in which our country will again lead the effort to create an international order based on the rule of law; a nation which upholds fundamental rights even for those it believes to be its captured enemies; a nation whose financial house is in order; a nation where the market place is kept healthy by effective government scrutiny; a country which does what is necessary to provide for the health, education, and welfare of our people; a society in which citizens of all faiths enjoy equal standing; a republic once again comfortable that its chief executive knows the limits as well as the powers of the presidency; a nation that places the highest value on facts, not ideology, as the basis for all its great debates and decisions.