March 14, 2008

The Bush Legacy

After the American Century

The two presidential primary campaigns have preoccupied the media so much that it is easy to miss actual policy making going on in Washington. The American press today reports that President Bush has greatly reduced the oversight of intelligence operations inside the US. This action came almost 30 years to the day since that wild-eyed radical Gerald Ford created a civilian oversight board that had considerable investigative powers. In exchange, the reports of this board were not published to the world, but at least someone was watching the CIA and other intelligence organizations, and had the power to compel them to give regular reports. These powers have been almost entirely stripped away, leaving only the hollow appearance of oversight.

The Bush legacy may well be a presidency on steroids, with vast powers granted to the White House and little countervailing power. Remembering that President Ford created this oversight board in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, and keeping in mind the excesses of Vice-President Cheney, Bush is creating a recipe for new disasters. It is bad enough to lack judgement in specific policy decisions or in specific Supreme Court nominations, but these are vetted openly in Congress, and therefore subject to democratic controls. But intelligence, notably wiretapping, is far less subject to open scrutiny, which is why the Intelligence Board was a good idea.

Indeed, I am not aware of widespread critique of the civilian oversight of intelligence. No real justification was given for Bush's action, either. In effect, he is making it hard for us to find out what went on while he was in power, a bit like giving himself clemency in advance. It is hard not to think that this action is part of a cover-up. This is the same president whose CIA has kidnapped people and tortured them, imprisoned people without charging them with crimes, and denied prisoners the protection of a lawyer or habeus corpus. Those things all happened during a period of civilian oversight. Now that this safeguard has been removed, one can only wonder: What has the Administration done now that it would not like the world to know about?

One can only hope that McCain, Clinton, and Obama will all be asked pointedly, whether they will return to the system created by Gerald Ford. If this does not become an issue, then Bush's legacy will include destabilizing the balance between the President and the people. All Americans know that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." And that vigilance must always include the executive branch and its surveillance operations.