Trust Him With Our Rights? No.

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, December 22, 2005

George Bush's problem is that Washington is not a courtroom. If it were, he or his lawyer (Dick Cheney?) could rise and object to the mention of his "previous convictions." That way, every offense against custom, law, international agreements and common sense could be treated in isolation. Too bad for Bush, he has a rap sheet.

It is his record of nonstop belligerence toward anything that would limit his powers that works against him as he tries to make a case for what in shorthand is called domestic spying. Any other president would have earned the solicitous attention and understanding of the country, including his critics. After Sept. 11, 2001, we were all willing to make some accommodations. If the president wanted to tap some phones, let him tap. Better that than another terrorist attack.

The trouble with Bush is that it is hard to separate the reasonable from the unreasonable. It seems reasonable to me to listen in on phone calls from overseas to people here -- Americans or not -- if there is any link at all to suspected terrorists. If, say, a cell phone is found with certain numbers on it, I would monitor them all. That might not meet a strict legal standard, but it does seem to be common sense. With all due regard to law, the highest law of all is "better safe than sorry."

But a reasonable stretching of the law in this respect becomes mighty suspect and somewhat scary when everything else is brought to mind. After all, the very same people who assure us that they are merely being prudent -- trust us -- are the same guys who held out until the last minute to retain torture as an option in questioning terrorist suspects and others. They are the same people -- Cheney in particular -- who are so tone-deaf to appearances, not to mention the opinions of the military, that they would publicly fight a restriction on torture. They do have a point -- not a persuasive one, mind you, but a point nonetheless -- but they see it as more important than anything else, even America's post-Abu Ghraib image.

Right after Sept. 11 the Bush administration announced that it had no use for the Geneva Conventions. It would apply them as it saw fit -- and it did not see fit when it came to terrorists. These terrorists, after all, made war by no rules. Why should we abide by any? The answer, as many military officers said, is that we still could hold our enemies to a standard of conduct toward prisoners. If we did not adhere to it ourselves, there was no chance they would. The Bush administration brushed aside these objections. It established a vast Siberia that could be anywhere and where a suspect could be held forever on charges that were never brought.

So an administration that makes something of a reasonable case when it comes to tapping the international phone calls of American citizens has its standing and veracity considerably weakened by what went before. The White House cannot explain why it did not ask Congress for this authority because, it is now clear, it does not want to ask Congress for anything. It will not explain why it could not seek warrants from a judge because, really, it does not want to seek warrants from a judge. This is the Louis XIV school of government: In matters of national security, Bush must say to himself, he is the state.

Such a president cannot be trusted. In Bush's case, the extra inch that would be given another president in wartime has to be measured out in increments of tenths. He is so suffused with his own sense of righteousness that he cannot imagine his laws being abused -- not by him, certainly, and not by his chummy group of nicknamed nincompoops, either. He listens to Cheney, who still smarts from post-Watergate reforms that made the Gerald Ford presidency less imperial than Richard Nixon's -- and on purpose. Cheney was Ford's chief of staff.

In courtroom trials, it does not matter what went before. The fact that the defendant had robbed does not necessarily mean that he has robbed again. But life is about rap sheets -- reputations and permanent records and personnel files. Read George Bush's and then ask yourself if it was exigency or ideology that prompted him to tap the international calls of American citizens without showing a court why. In his case, the record speaks for itself.

cohenr@washpost.com


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