2006-01-26 / Letters to the Editor

The president must be held accountable

Thomas J. Bembenek, in his response to the letter by Joe Clifford (“What kind of nation do we want?”), dismisses Mr. Clifford’s years of teaching high school history. At the risk of sounding impudent, I might suggest that Mr. Bembenek take a refresher course in American history.

It is disheartening that Mr. Bembenek feels that his military service compels him to defend the right of the president to do whatever he pleases, regardless of Constitutionality.

I too served in our military. And on the day that I was commissioned as a naval officer, I swore a solemn oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Not the president, not the Congress, nor the flag — but the Constitution. Yes, that archaic piece of parchment, written by a bunch of geezers in powdered wigs who most folks haven’t thought about much since, well, high school history class. While I no longer wear the uniform, I am still obliged to speak up in defense of our Constitution. Today, it is most threatened not by enemies abroad, but by those within our government who would go to any lengths to consolidate and preserve their own power.

The revelation that President Bush has authorized numerous wiretaps of American citizens without obtaining a warrant has rightly outraged members of Congress of both political parties. The law requires FISA court approval for national security wiretaps. Violation of this law is a felony. If anything, the provisions of FISA already are tipped in favor of security over civil liberties. Since its inception in 1978, the FISA court has authorized over 10,000 national security warrants, and has only denie four. Why then would Bush circumvent the FISA court system? The logical conclusion is that his administration has been conducting domestic surveillance not only on suspected terrorists, but also on political dissidents.

You might say that this is the stuff of left-wing conspiracy theorists. If so, I would counter that you are either quite naïve or too young to remember the Nixon administration. Dr. Martin Luther King, in whose memory most of us were privileged with a day off from work last week, was a victim of FBI surveillance for years. FISA was enacted to prevent the widespread abuses in domestic surveillance disclosed in the Congressional hearings in the aftermath of Watergate. And now we have a president who openly and defiantly flouts this minimal legal provision to safeguard civil liberties. Those men that we quaintly refer to as our Founding Fathers embarked on a wonderful experiment.

This notion of democracy briefly flowered in ancient Greece until it died with the conquest of Athens by the Macedonians (although it flourished in many tribal cultures, including our Native Americans.) America was at the forefront of a movement first in Europe and then throughout the world to strip power from aristocracies, monarchies, and churches and restore it to “the people.” The authors of our Constitution understood the threat to democracy if any individual assumed too much political power, and wisely established a government with three branches, each holding checks and balances over the other two. But now we have a president whose philosophy of governance is rooted not in the Constitution but in the theory of the “unitary executive.” Bush justifies his authority to disregard any existing law by the 2001 Congressional resolution authorizing military force — a war against terror, which, as Bush has acknowledged, may continue indefinitely. There is a word for a government where a political leader possesses unconstrained and indefinite power — it’s called a dictatorship.

Mr. Bembenek’s exhortation to “Let the President spy!” echoes sentiments expressed by right-wing pundits who forget Benjamin Franklin’s admonition that those who would sacrifice liberty to gain security deserve neither and will lose both. I am not building bombs in my basement either, but I do not want the government tapping my phone, reading my email, or looking at my library records. A consequence of unbridled surveillance by a government on its people is the chilling effect it has on dissent and free speech — the essential lifeblood of a democracy.

I did not serve in the defense of my nation’s Constitution only to see the civil liberties it confers upon us so callously frittered away. The Constitution must be safeguarded, and those who threaten it — even the president — must be held accountable.

Michael Larkin


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