Wednesday, April 8, 2009

That Next Huge Scandal

Matt Yglesias sees the Obama administration's embrace of Bush-Cheney curtailments of civil liberties and yawns:

[W]hile disappointing this is also all rather predictable. Civil liberties is a bit of a ratchet. If the political opposition doesn’t succeed in blocking some new expansion of authority when it’s first proposed, the soon enough the opposition takes over and isn’t all that interested in curtailing its own authority. Consequently, more and more powers and secrecy start developing, abuses occur, and eventually there’s some big blowup and outraged and new rules get put into place. After all, all this has happened before. When electronic surveillance first became possible, it was immediately put into use and each successive administration found ways to expand its scope. From the beginning, there were abuses happening. And under Richard Nixon the abuses both became enormous and were uncovered. Then new rules were put into place. Rules that have been eroding ever since—first slowly, then quickly—and will probably continue to erode until the next huge scandal.
To this I would start by saying the "next huge scandal" is already well in motion, but simply has not been recognized as such. And the abuse under discussion -- Obama's decision to continue Bush's practice of concealing government lawlessness in the name of "state secrets" -- is a major factor in forestalling the recognition. The executive branch is going to court to ensure that the nature and scope of its surveillance is kept from public scrutiny.

Concretely, we don't know who the government has been tracking, upon what basis, for how long, or with what end in mind, and the Obama administration is working to keep this information hidden. Have you been the target of government spying? You don't know, and good luck finding out, let alone doing anything about it.

Note also how Yglesias's frame leaves out the judicial branch. Where are the judges in this? Where is the judicial review? An independent judiciary is supposed to be a bulwark against precisely this.

Last but not least, Yglesias's frame leaves out the major news media -- the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, CNN, big-3 networks, etc. The big-name news media can produce scandal from anything, but runaway executive power doesn't rate the breathless hour-by-hour coverage devoted to, say, missing doe-eyed teenagers or extraordinarily fecund mothers.

It's already a scandal. It's a system-wide collapse, and nothing to yawn about.

Update: Glennzilla is right to notice that there are at least some voices in mainstream venues willing to take this on. One such is Keith Olbermann (another is Rachel Maddow):
Last night, Keith Olbermann -- who has undoubtedly been one of the most swooning and often-uncritical admirers of Barack Obama of anyone in the country (behavior for which I rather harshly criticized him in the past) -- devoted the first two segments of his show to emphatically lambasting Obama and Eric Holder's DOJ for the story I wrote about on Monday: namely, the Obama administration's use of the radical Bush/Cheney state secrets doctrine and -- worse still -- a brand new claim of "sovereign immunity" to insist that courts lack the authority to decide whether the Bush administration broke the law in illegally spying on Americans.
It's the right principles, not the individuals wearing "our" jerseys, that we have to defend and advance.

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