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Conjecture Embraced As Fact

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By Richard Cohen
Wednesday, February 8, 2006; 6:15 PM

An odd thing happened in Washington this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on whether the president has the authority to intercept international phone calls without first seeking a warrant. Very few people believe that the president has that authority -- which is different than asking whether he should have that authority -- but Gonzales, who is almost entirely a creation of George W. Bush, insisted the president does. He presented, by way of proving his point, this overwhelming piece of evidence: Bush has done it.

The argument in favor of the National Security Agency intercepts is consistent with those that took us to war in Iraq. They are all a collection, an assemblage, a concatenation of fibs, exaggerations, misinterpretations, selected evidence, hype, false leads, vile suggestions, felonious deletions and the like, which marched us to Baghdad where we remain to this day. Gonzales, an apparatchik, lacks the courage of his mendacity. If he were to tell the truth ... never mind, it won't happen.

The belief that George Bush has virtually whatever power he wants to wage this war against terrorism is not, as some deluded souls think, the consequence of some legal theory or some grand constitutional nonsense or even the close and nerdy reading of the congressional resolution enabling the president to visit war upon Iraq. It is a consequence, instead, of Bush's conviction that he is doing God's work. You wanna argue with that, buddy?

This is why the war itself needed to be waged for specious reasons -- weapons of mass destruction. There were good reasons -- or, if you will, just plain reasons -- to go to war in Iraq. The president could have built his case around the inhumanity of Saddam Hussein's regime or its refusal to abide by numerous U.N. resolutions or even that the Middle East needed to be thrown up into the air to see if democracy came down -- something like that. But this, as Bush must have known and his associates have sometimes admitted (See Vanity Fair's 2003 interview with Paul Wolfowitz), would not suffice. He needed more: a threat. He needed the nonexistent al Qaeda link and the nonexistent WMD. The two threatened imminence. They justified doing something quickly -- too quickly, as it turned out. Conjecture was embraced as fact.

In order to take a nation to war, you have to believe mightily in the threat you are facing and the virtue of your cause. You have to gin yourself up, pull out all the patriotic stops, inflict the slippery-mouthed Cheney on the pitifully gullible viewers of Fox News. This is why all the rules were thrown out. Restrictions against torture were branded as quaint -- and amended to the point of revolting nonsense: the pain had to be virtually death-like. These prisoners, after all, were not serving nations, as in the good old days, but flagless terrorist organizations. In other words, evil. Bush was merely giving permission to fight fire with fire.

Possibly, the NSA intercept program aborted a terrorist operation or two. This was told to me by someone who is in a position to know and I believe him. But what I could not get him to explain was why this program could not have been sanctioned under law. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, not to mention other senators, asked the same question of Gonzales: Why not come down Pennsylvania Avenue and work with Congress? "We didn't think we needed to, quite frankly," the attorney general said. Almost the truth: We didn't have to , would have been more like it.

Since the existence of this program was disclosed by The New York Times, the administration has responded to honest questions with dishonest answers. Mostly, they are variations of the old "which side are you on?" refrain: the terrorists or our own? So we do not know why warrants could have been sought or the law changed or even why international calls were monitored but not domestic ones. The answer in all cases comes down to this: The administration does what it wants. It is that simple.

Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 took the measure of Congress when it balked at appropriating enough money to send the Great White Fleet around the world. TR said he would send it out and see if Congress would bring it back. Nothing has changed. Presented by the president with a fait accompli, Congress almost always blinks and folds. This is the unintended consequence of the war on terrorism. The terrorists may or may not win, but Congress has surely lost.


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