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The If-Then Game

Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006 12:02 AM

"It's amazing that people say to me, 'Well, he's just breaking the law,'" said President Bush as he kicked off his latest defense of a covert, warrantless wiretap program that has drawn fire these past weeks. "If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?"

Class, please take note of the following problems with the above statement:

1. Implied: People who want to break the law don't brief Congress.

2. Implied: People who do brief Congress are therefore trustworthy, honest, and law-abiding.

3. Implied: It is not possible to lie to Congress.

The other technique at play here is letting the other person make the assumption. IF Mr. Bush wanted to break the law, he would not have briefed Congress, THEREFORE he didn't break the law?

It's nice, but he never said anything either way. He only said he briefed Congress, leaving the folks at home follow the bouncing ball and say, "Oh, he didn't break the law."

Bear in mind that this is not the first time this kind of fill-in-the-blanks logic has been the prime defense for President Bush. Shortly after 9/11, the Bush Administration engaged in choir practice, all singing the same line.

"if we had known terrorists would use planes as missiles, we would have done anything to prevent it."

1. Implied: the Bush Administration did not know about the pending attacks, when in fact, all they admitted was that they didn't know the exact method used by the terrorists.

2. Implied: the Bush Administration would have done anything to prevent the attacks, but only if it involved the use of planes as missiles.

But again, at no point did they ever say anything definite.

Here are a couple of other favorites from Mr. Bush:

"I must have served, I got an honorable discharge." This was said in an interview with Tim Russert, amid the accusations that Mr. Bush had not, in fact, satisfactorily completed his service requirements with the National Guard. And as the story turned out to be built on forged documents and wishful thinking, why didn't we get a straight answer like, "Of course I served. I'm proud to have done so."?

"The SEC says there is no case." Another stock line repeated throughout Bush's campaign in 2000. At no time does Bush affirm that he did nothing wrong; he only says the SEC admits they have no case, which is not the same thing.

In today's speech, Mr. Bush went on to say, "I'm mindful of your civil liberties and so I had all kinds of lawyers review the process."

But it would be helpful to know if those lawyers were asked whether the program violated civil liberties or constitutional protections, as opposed to whether or not the president can authorize warrantless wiretaps. Please note that the continued argument is that Mr. Bush has the authority to do so, and that 'review by lawyers' means civil liberties and constitutional protections are intact.

The proper checks and balances for surveillance procedures are set forth in law, both FISA and USA-PATRIOT. If those laws are insufficient to the task, there are procedures through which they may be amended. Yet Americans are being asked to buy a pig in a poke; unfettered presidential privilege and executive power. We're being asked to believe that Congress is incapable of addressing legislative issues, or that reasoned debate - the bulwark of our democracy - somehow cedes knowledge or initiative to the enemy.

Bush pointed once more to the Authorization of Force, saying that Congress hadn't prescribed (or proscribed) tactics. This is a childish game that has gone on far too long, and we're back to the ethical model of, 'that which is not expressly forbidden is acceptable.' Mom said I couldn't have a cookie before dinner on Monday, but it's Tuesday, and she didn't say I couldn't have a cookie before dinner on Tuesday, therefore it's okay.

Also on the tour circuit in defense of the surveillance program was General Michael V. Hayden, who was head of the NSA when the warrantless wiretaps first began.

Hayden says the program hinges on a lower standard of proof - a 'reasonable basis to believe' as opposed to 'probable cause' - which undermines constitutional protections under the 4th Amendment (which affirms the 'probable cause' standard). He adds that the intrusion of privacy is limited to international calls and those they have reason to believe involve Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates.

So we're to believe Suspect A in Syria, placing a call to Citizen B in Philadelphia, would be wiretapped, but Citizen B in Philadelphia, subsequently placing a call to Citizen C in Bakersfield, would not be?


In other words, the program has to include strictly domestic calls. It's how the standard cell structure functions; only one person in the cell is the point-of-contact with the next level up, and they are rarely the cell leader or the point-of-contact with the next level down. Ideally, surveillance would then follow Citizen B's calls to Citizens C, D, and E; then follow the calls those people make, and so on.

Assuming, of course, that a single mode of communication, subject to electronic surveillance, is being used. That is, Citizen B, having received the important call from Suspect A, will then directly call Citizen C to discuss the all-important plans for the next terrorist attack. (It's far more likely that a letter would be sent, a non-verbal signal exchanged, or information passed through a dead drop.)

It's hard to believe that a program that has a lower standard of proof, cannot function under existing laws which specifically address foreign surveillance, nor which was authorized through an executive order or presidential finding (unless such are classified), would be so narrow.

That the Bush Administration continues to practice justification through obfuscation isn't exactly a confidence builder.

The Ministry has received 2 comment(s) on this topic.

Bob - 2006-01-24 16:47:06
I'm beginning to think there's something in the water. I've been grousing about Bush's questionable honesty since 2000, and folks just keep giving the man a free pass. Accountability in government starts with the electorate, not the elected.

Brin - 2006-01-24 03:36:40
Dub is going to play three-card monty with the law from now until the end of his presidency -- which theoretically could end earlier if only people got tired enough of him doing this to contact their reps and demand impeachment hearings. Oh well. One can dream...