Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Wiretapping Leak Inquiry Epitomizes American Political Divide

As the Bush presidency heads deeper into its sixth year, it appears that one controversy has emerged from a bevy to both highlight and deepen the political divisions that began with the Supreme Court decision that sent George W. Bush to the White House in late 2000, sharpened in the wake of the Iraqi invasion, and became entrenched over the past year with scandals, Katrina, and the debate over the (ever?) expanding powers of the presidency dominating the headlines.

The Bush administration's deliberate decision to avoid established legal channels and wiretap Americans without a court order brings together and then collides all of these political divisions while fermenting the discontent of those who have been worried about preserving civil liberties and personal freedoms since the time of the original passing of the USA PATRIOT Act.

The latest development in this story centers upon an investigation into the leak that broke the wiretapping story, as The New York Times reports:

Federal agents have interviewed officials at several of the country's law enforcement and national security agencies in a rapidly expanding criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding a New York Times article published in December that disclosed the existence of a highly classified domestic eavesdropping program, according to government officials.

The investigation, which appears to cover the case from 2004, when the newspaper began reporting the story, is being closely coordinated with criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department, the officials said. People who have been interviewed and others in the government who have been briefed on the interviews said the investigation seemed to lay the groundwork for a grand jury inquiry that could lead to criminal charges.

While the "sides" of this issue easily take on traditional partisan leanings in many ways, each camp – left and right – has posed uneasy questions to mull over as both political parties face an election year and complex issues that hold no easy answers. The Democrats as a whole are concerned with national security while maintaining civil liberties in a post 9/11 world. For Republicans, and particularly those with libertarian and small government ideologies, the notion of governmental overreach into the private lives of citizens is troubling.

On the issue of "whistle blowing" and the right of the press to break stories and hold government responsible, Decision '08, in a piece entitled "Son Of PlameGate," does an excellent job of framing the issue from the conservative side:

There’s a real chance that the biggest casualty of the various Bush administration scandals circulating through his second term will be the press, and for those of us on the right, that prospect manages the difficult trick of being welcome and troubling at once.

A welcome prospect because, next to Hollywood’s elite and senators, journalists can be the most pompous of all professionals, hiding behind their principles when it suits them, and discarding them quickly when it does not. Troubling, because a vigorous free press is not only a good thing, it is absolutely essential to a well-functioning democracy.

The investigation into the leak is viewed by many in the liberal blogosphere in the (harsh) light of perceived or potentially illegal actions – misleading the nation into war with Iraq, mistreatment of prisoners, Scooter Libby and the Valerie Plame investigation, Jack Abramoff and corruption via undue influence of lobbyists, etc. – by the Bush White House and leaders of the Republican Party.

Jonathan Singer, on MyDD, sums up a statement in which the Bush administration is accused of being the "Party of Ineffective Big Government," by saying:

The Bush administration spies on the American people and then seems to expend more effort in finding out who blew the whistle on the program than it does going after crooks inside the White House. The list can go on and on.

This feeling of irony and hypocrisy is echoed by Glenn Greenwald on The Huffington Post:

The significance of this article from today's New York Times cannot be overstated. In essence, while the President sits in the White House undisturbed after proudly announcing that he has been breaking the law and will continue to do so, his slavish political appointees at the Justice Department are using the mammoth law enforcement powers of the federal government to find and criminally prosecute those who brought this illegal conduct to light…

Washington Monthly goes so far as to name names of those it believes have the real possibility of seeing jail time at the conclusion of the leak investigation, including Dan Eggan, James Risen, and Eric Lichtblau. An argument not often heard since the Libby indictment was then unfurled: "Too bad we don't have a federal shield law to protect them."

The New York Times itself, of course, does not escape the criticism of those who regularly assert that the Gray Lady doth lean to the left:

The New York Times is reporting that the investigation of the NSA leaks is progressing rapidly, even as it implies it is only the right wing which is concerned about it and quotes a lawyer (Mr. Boutrous) to the effect that the paper itself may be protected by a common law reporters’ privilege.

As 2006 winds its way toward what could be an Election Day that changes the balance of power in one or both houses of Congress, the evolving controversy over wiretapping will likely play a front-and-center role. And as the news headlines now reflect a Justice Department investigation into the leak that broke the story, many on the left are chomping at the bit to regain the legislative power to subpoena and officially conduct investigations of their own.

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