January 15, 2006

Domestic Suspicion

President Bush and his administration insist on the need for quick judgment unencumbered by the judicial process when the need arises for spying within the nation's borders. An executive order to spy on citizens and non-citizens alike has been in place since late 2001. This means letters, e-mails, phone conversations, and anything the federal government believes will help it combat terrorism: it's all open season. This news was leaked and confirmed last month as the renewal of the Patriot Act was before Congress. The White House line was anger over the leak. Comfort to the enemy and all that, so it was said.

The president makes a case that such powers are needful. More than that: they should be secret. Domestic spying has prevented human death and suffering within our borders since 9/11. One member of Congress criticized "King" Bush last month for taking power that was not his to take. But what is the moral assessment of the president's position? But is being a "king" immoral? Or does it just fly against our American perception of the power of government? As significant as our view of legal processes and executive power may be, is President Bush committing an immoral act by spying on people without permission? Or is he just violating our political proprieties? Or m aybe he's on firm moral and legal ground?

The argument for and against the president on legal grounds has been made elsewhere and continues to be made. This essay's focus is on the Church's approach to the powers President Bush has shouldered. The core relevant section of Church teaching with regard to this is found in Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes 73 and the sections that follow.

Acknowledging the trend toward protection of human rights, GS makes a case that "the protection of the rights of a person is indeed a necessary condition so that citizens, individually or collectively, can take an active part in the life and government of the state."

Does government tapping into conversations prevent monitored (but innocent) persons from this activity? Not yet it hasn't.

However, those political systems, prevailing in some parts of the world are to be reproved which hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize large numbers through avarice and political crimes, and divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves.

It is true that law enforcement officials make mistakes. Local, state, federal, and shadow agencies have all blundered from time to time in the war on terrorism, detaining the innocent and in some heinous or error-prone cases, causing physical injury or death. Does the case for a freer hand in domestic spying increase such cases? Probably, but the tightening of the judicial process for anti-terrorism efforts would not eradicate such mistakes. We're only human, after all.

The Church's concern -- and ours -- should rise if and when such efforts at spying were made to divert attention away from terrorists and to the political opposition. Political leaders might be uncomfortable about Cindy Sheehan, or other war opponents. But political distrust does not equate with a reasonable terrorist threat and the tapping of anti-war phones or computers.

It is said that the administration would get just about every warrant for which it asked. Either that means our spies are skillfully accurate at determining suspects, or that the judiciary provides a rubber stamp for whatever the spies ask.

I knew friends who were wiretapped in the 80's for supporting the Central American sanctuary movement. So I don't take domestic spying too lightly. But for now, I have trouble mustering moral outrage at Mr Bush. There's circumstantial evidence afoot that the moral underbelly of politics is hardly pristine. Let me boil this down to some simple yes and no questions:

Do I feel safer with the Bush policies?

No. More spying means more information. Integrating information means wisdom, and is far from being a given. I hope the low level anti-terrorist folks in the government are doing a wise job intercepting information. They were asleep at the wheel on 9/10 and maybe now they have a drive to make up for that lapse. Thirty years of no airline hijacking in the US and then four within an hour on that fateful day? Domestic law enforcement still has something to prove. If they're stopping terrorist threats but nobody's talking about it, they have to keep working without the public gratitude the military receives. And obviously, I'd feel a whole lot safer if we hadn't invaded Iraq. Bush and his oil buddies picked the number three (at best) threat. So much for wisdom at the top.

Am I concerned about spying without judicial approval?

Sad to say, not yet. I tend to think the courts will pretty much give the feds what they want. There's no reasonable sign the peace movement is being targetted. As long as Bush doesn't pull a Nixon, I'd say he's overstepped his authority, but I also don't doubt he thinks its morally justified. The rubber-stamp courts are what bother me.

So what's the moral bottom line?

If the Bush administration (or that of a future president) makes a move on non-terrorists, then I think the moral case for domestic spying will topple, taking the legitimacy of the president in office along with it.

Isn't that harsh?

No. Stepping over the line to seek a political or economic good, even in a questionable case will open the legal and moral doubts too much. I can't say it would be an impeachable offense, but I would say the executive branch would tumble from the moral high road.

Bottom line politically?

It's not a front line consideration. Not yet. The patriot card is still a valuable one for Mr Bush. But the Republicans as a whole are on shaky ground. We know it's going on--that's a good thing. I suspect our terrorist adversaries also knew it was going on. If they're getting caught, they have some clue as to how that's happening. I think Mr Bush would prefer not to be scrutinized by concerned Americans.

And morally?

The Republicans have more up front moral concerns in the public eye. My sense is to go with what we know and cut loose any politician in obvious moral doo-doo. Wait and see what happens with the president.