Going Too Far

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

IS THE NATION becoming complacent about the terrorist threat? That would be one reading of recent accusations that President Bush is abusing his powers and of a nascent stirring of congressional interest in reining him in. When the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were fresh in the nation's mind, according to this view, most people condoned whatever was necessary to keep the country safe. Now that an attack seems less plausible, Americans want to get picky about their civil liberties. But Mr. Bush can't afford to forget.

That, at least, seemed to be Vice President Cheney's message in an interview with "Nightline" from Iraq on Sunday, to be broadcast last night. ABC's Terry Moran asked, "Are you troubled at all that more than 100 people in U.S. custody have died -- 26 of them now being investigated as criminal homicides -- people beaten to death, suffocated to death, died of hypothermia in U.S. custody?" The vice president replied, "No. I won't accept your numbers, Terry. But I guess one of the things I'm concerned about is that as we get farther and farther away from 9/11, and there have been no further attacks against the U.S., there seems to be less and less concern about doing what's necessary in order to defend the country."

Mr. Cheney is right that complacency is a danger. It's good that the president keeps the terrorist threat uppermost in his mind. And it's fair to ask: If there were an attack tomorrow, would we still be complaining the day after about torture, or secret detentions, or spying on Americans? Fair to ask; and the answer is yes, we would be complaining, and not just because of the damage done to core American values and traditions. It's also become clear, since the attacks, that the president's overreaching has damaged U.S. standing in the war that he and Mr. Cheney rightly cite as their priority.

The overreaching began with the administration's refusal to hold hearings, as called for by the Geneva Conventions, to determine whether captured fighters deserved prisoner-of-war status and with its decision to set aside Army procedures for handling prisoners under those conventions. It extended to the president's assertion that he could designate any American an enemy combatant and lock him up for as long as he chose, without access to counsel or the courts. It includes his claimed right to kidnap people, even inside allied democracies, to transport them anywhere and to hold them as "ghost prisoners," again indefinitely, without allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross any access. Perhaps most shamefully, Mr. Bush has insisted on his right to inflict on detainees treatment that most people would regard as torture. Now added to the list is eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without a warrant. And there is probably more that we don't yet know.

A couple of threads run through all of these things. One is the grave harm they've done to U.S. prestige throughout the world and, more specifically, to the United States' ability to demand fair treatment for its soldiers and to urge other nations to respect human rights. The other is how unnecessary most of them seem to be. How would it have set back the war effort to have told the Red Cross the location of detainees? What would have been lost by asking Congress to expand the president's powers to order surveillance, if existing law was too restrictive?

It's natural that in the chaotic days and weeks after Sept. 11 the administration grasped for every tool at its disposal. What's harder to understand is the administration's digging in on every excess even after it had time to catch its breath. The American people do want Mr. Bush to keep them safe, as he said yesterday, and they may be slow to wake to infringements on their liberty. But they also understand that due process can be infringed only so much before the injury becomes irreparable. The belated and limited awakening we are seeing in Congress is the consequence of many Americans realizing that the administration has gone too far.

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