Practicality vs. Principles

Probably what bothers me most these days about the political dialogue in the United States is the full circle from the politicians’ cynicism and hypocrisy to an enabling establishment media, the willing public who eat it all up, and finally back to the politicians who justify their bogus positions based on the manipulated media and willing public.

A simple example of this was the report that CIA Director Leon Panetta closed down an on-again, off-again covert program that former Vice President Dick Cheney had ordered be kept from congressional oversight, as required by law. Almost immediately an anonymous source from the CIA leaked to the establishment press that the program in question was merely an operation to kill Al Qaeda leaders but was never made operational. The politicians, supported by the Washington talking heads, all ran to airways to tell the American people that there was nothing wrong with or to be surprised about us killing Al Qaeda operatives, especially considering that we have already been targeting them in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past eight years without rest. The American listening public hears about killing the bad guys, and no one understands why this is a big deal. The only real debate that emerges is whether it is wrong to use the word “assassinate” because it would imply illegal activities whereas killing Al Qaeda members is fully within our right.

Do you see how the vicious cycle works? The entire discussion is based on an uncorroborated anonymous leak to a press corps that lives off of not questioning authority, lest they be denied the scope in the future. Barely anywhere in the press was the most obvious scenario ever discussed, mainly that the CIA was planning to illegally target/kill/assassinate/murder terrorism suspects “off of the battle field”. In other words, the CIA would illegally enter a third country (ie, Italy, Germany, etc) without that country’s permission and illegally kidnap or kill that suspect. Believe it or not, Italy has ordered CIA agents to stand trial for similar activities.

More importantly, though, no one in the press picked up on the scary underlying message: our politicians are above the law. If the politicians, pundits, and public all think that the CIA should be allowed to kill Al Qaeda suspects around the world at will, then (i) why keep this from Congress they are required under current law, and (ii) why not make expressly make such actions legal? Furthermore, why was Mr. Cheney always so afraid of the law if as he claims, based on the CIA’s anonymous leak, there was nothing amiss?

This week, Glenn Greewald writes three convincing posts relating to our government hypocrisy and the establishment media’s role in keeping our politicians above the law. For example, earlier this week, Greenwald wrote about how Cheney had called for the unprecedented use of the U.S. military against American citizens on U.S. soil (makes you think Obama isn’t so bad after all). Could this have been one of those programs that Cheney hoped to keep from congressional oversight?

In a second post, Greenwald writes about how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, under the authority of President Obama, has threatened our closest allies, the British, if they follow a court order, in accordance with the rule of law, and disclose evidence of U.S. torture. So much for the U.S. being a beacon of light and promoting democracy and judicial independence around the world. Ironically, even by making the threat, the U.S. is arguably engaging in an illegal activity. Another thing we don’t hear much about in the press is that by failing to investigate claims of torture, the U.S. is violating International Law and its treaty obligations and therefore may be subjecting U.S. officials to criminal prosecution abroad. Imagine that, Cheney and company prohibited from travelling abroad, joining the ranks of grounded third world dictators and war criminals.

Finally, in “Practicalities v. principles: the prime Beltway affliction”, Greenwald discusses the frightening state of American politics where, with the aid of the press, our politicians are immune to the rule of law because they have more important things to attend to.

By the design of the Founders, most American political issues are driven by the vicissitudes of political realities, shaped by practicalities and resolved by horse-trading compromises among competing factions.  But not all political questions were to be subject to that process.  Some were intended to be immunized from those influences.  Those were called “principles,” or “rights,” or “guarantees” — and what distinguishes them from garden-variety political disputes is precisely that they were intended to be both absolute and adhered to regardless of what Massing calls “the practical considerations policymakers must contend with.”

We don’t have to guess what those principles are.  The Founders created documents — principally the Constitution — which had as their purpose enumerating the principles that were to be immunized from such “practical considerations.”  All one has to do in order to understand their supreme status is to understand the core principle of Constitutional guarantees:  no acts of Government can conflict with these principles or violate them for any reason.  And all one has to do to appreciate their absolute, unyielding essence is to read how they’re written:  The President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  “[A]ll Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.”  “No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  Even policies which enjoy majoritarian support and ample “practical” justification will be invalid — nullified — if they violate those guarantees.

. . . Those principles are absolute and unyielding by their nature.  Garden-variety political questions — what should be the highest tax rate?  what kind of health care policy should the government adopt? to what extent should the government regulate private industry? — are ones intended to be driven by “the practical considerations policymakers must contend with.”  But questions about our basic liberties and core premises of our government — presidential adherence to the law, providing due process before sticking people in cages, spying on Americans only with probable cause search warrants, treating all citizens including high political officials equally under the law — are supposed to be immune from such “practical” and ephemeral influences.  Those principles, by definition, prevail in undiluted form regardless of public opinion and regardless of the “practical” needs of political officials.  That should not be controversial; that is the central republican premise for how our political system was designed.

. . . Dispensing with core Constitutional principles in the name of “practical considerations” — and treating ludicrous, bad faith claims with respect — creates a facade of reasonableness.  But there’s nothing reasonable about it.  It’s intellectually barren and, worse, is the prime enabler for why our political leaders stray so far and so frequently from those principles.  It’s why they break the law with impunity and know they can.  The Bill of Rights and the rule of law aren’t like modifications to the tax code or compromises over the stimulus package.  They’re in a fundamentally different category.  The failure to recognize that category is a defining attribute of the Beltway sickness and is a prime reason why Washington so frequently degrades and destroys whatever it touches.

I recommend reading the entire article.

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Filed under Essays, Obama 44

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