Wednesday, March 29, 2006

And promises to keep

Fascinating interview with Gary Hart this morning on Democracy Now! Did you know that, until the Church Committee started looking into COINTELPRO, Congress had never exercised any oversight of the CIA or the FBI?


Which explains why:

Basically, what the country is going through now is a rerun of what happened during periods of the Vietnam War, in which largely the Nixon administration undertook illegal activities to place American citizens under surveillance and accuse them of unpatriotic conduct, and justifying support for the war -- using support for the war as a justification for violation of constitutional rights and liberties. So, what's happening now is a rerun of history, in effect.
There is no cultural basis, no tradition, for this kind of oversight. But let's put that committee in context:

There had never been genuine congressional oversight of the intelligence community in the United States since the C.I.A. was formed in 1947. By and large, members of Congress did not want to know what was going on. When press leaks of unconstitutional behavior on the part of the administration occurred, there was public demand for some kind of investigation. That's what led to our committee.

We had eleven members -- six Democrats, five Republicans -- including the late Barry Goldwater and others, and we began a unique undertaking which was to try to find out what the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. and N.S.A. and others were up to. And it was during that that the most startling revelations had to do with our efforts to assassinate foreign leaders, particularly Fidel Castro, over two or three administrations, and this massive scheme to surveil American citizens.
The members were Goldwater, John Tower, Frank Church, Gary Hart, Philip Hart, Walter Mondale. Try to imagine a similiar committee today. Tower and Goldwater were certainly not "liberals" in their day. But try to imagine who would do what they did, today. Try to imagine members of both parties concerned enough about governmental activity and restrictions on governmental power. And this was in 1975. Gerald Ford was President.

As I say, there is no long history of Congressional oversight of intelligence activity. It goes back no further than 30 years, and began almost 30 years after the CIA was started. FISA came from the work of the Church Committee. The FISA court system is no older than that. It is no wonder the attempts at oversight now are so pathetic and wan. Even in an era dominated by partisan politics in a way we haven't seen in decades, it isn't in the culture of the Congress to look into what "intelligence agencies" are up to. Mostly, as Hart says, because Congress doesn't want to know. Like the public at large, they buy into the idea that there are dark things needed to "protect us," and the less we know about such things, the better (and safer) we will sleep. They, and the public, buy into the idea that government functions best when it has a "reasonable monopoly on violence." But that's the problem, isn't it? Government governs best which has the greatest monopoily on power over individuals, and that power need not be limited to violence in order to legitimate the government. After all, if it is only violence that is the standard, then only brutal rulers are truly legitimate. Surely government should have a right to a monopoly on certain kinds of power, the better to make life as comfortable as possible for those of us who do not run afoul of the government.

Surely? And if we grant government that right, isn't it better to remain chastely ignorant of what government must do in our name, in order to protect us from the projections of our own id? Welcome to reality as a Tom Clancy novel. Frankly, it was bound to come to this.

And so now we have COINTELPRO all over again. It's in the culture, in other words. Americans will always despise "big government," fed as we are on lies about "self-reliance" and "independent frontiersman" (who wouldn't have gone West if the gov't wasn't giving away land, offering military protection, and extending civilization, like railroads, out to them). And we will always look to government whenever we decide there might be monsters under the bed. Because one of the powers we seem determined to cede to government, is a reasonable monopoly on keeping the monsters, and the elephants, away.

So, as ever, we have miles to go before we sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment