Minitrue

2009/05/05

While reading the news this morning, I came across an article referring to the lack of response to the DoJ “torture inquiry” from Bush II era legal counsels. [1] What piqued my interest, however, was not the story itself, but its mention, at the end of the article, of a “congressionally mandated truth commission,” so I decided to do a little digging. The reason this concerned me should be evident to those who recognize the word I used for the title of this post; see below, if you do not recognize it. [2] It turns out that the “truth commission” is, indeed, a serious consideration within the Democrat-dominated Congress, with proposals from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI); [3] thus far, it appears that only Conyers has proposed actual legislation, in the form of House bill H.R. 104 of the 111th Congress (09 Jan. 2009). [4]

In point of fact, the “truth commission” is nothing like my fears of an Orwellian Minitrue, though it does contain within it the potential for leading in that direction. What worries me in this specific instance is the sense of revisionism that the both Conyers and Leahy imply in their messages. Leahy demands an exhaustive inquiry into the Bush II administration officials who were responsible for the various “misdeeds” and “abuses” that are now popularly laid at the feet of only Bush II and his administration. Similarly, Conyers’ bill targets only the policies of the Bush II administration, implying that the actions were solely the responsibility of Bush II and his associates (see Section 1 of H.R. 104). Torture allegations aside, many of these so-called “abuses” are actions that resulted from the passage of the now politically unpopular USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. [5] Conyers, at least, does have some ground to stand on, as he voted against the PATRIOT Act when it was brought up for vote in 2001; [6] Leahy, on the other hand, voted for the Act, [7] though I suspect he is doing everything he can to downplay that action. I also find it interesting that many now-prominent Democrats also voted in favor of the Act, among them House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Reid, and Vice President Biden (I am more tolerant of the President’s criticisms, if any, as he was not a member of Congress in 2001; thus, he did not vote for or against the Act).

While many of the less savory actions may indeed be the result of executive discretion, what concerns me is that Leahy, at least, implies that Constitutional violations have taken place; it is also commonly charged that the PATRIOT Act significantly abridges the civil liberties of Americans. I checked the summary of the act, and almost all of the provisions related to communications surveillance pertained to individuals who are suspected of engaging in criminal acts specifically related to terrorism and/or foreign nationals who are suspected of the same (I did not read the sections on money laundering, but since this is already illegal, anyways, it does not bother me that the rules regarding this action have changed). Granted, there is the potential for abuse in this case, as individuals could be charged with connection to potential terrorist activities as a pretense for increased surveillance, but based on my (admittedly non-scientific or comprehensive) memory, it does not seem that this has happened with greater frequency since 2001; whatever oversight mechanisms exist seem to be working properly. In any event, the expanded authority granted to various law enforcement agencies was not solely the work of executive discretion – the PATRIOT Act, after all, was enacted by Congress; at the time, Congress must have felt that the provisions of the Act were reasonable.

What strikes me as revisionist in these claims is that Congressional Democrats do not seem willing to admit their own potential culpability in these now unpopular actions, particularly on the part of those who voted in favor of the act. If these individuals were so strongly opposed to the actions taken as a result of the expanded authorities granted by the Act, why have they waited until now to raise their objections? One can, of course, argue that it would have done little good to register one’s complaints in the Republican-dominted Congress of the time, but is this any excuse for holding one’s tongue? These individuals could, at least, have put their complaints on record, even if there was no serious possibility that action would have resulted; silence, after all, implies consent, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. Congress may also step in, if the actions of the Executive branch overstep the constitutional boundaries set for it, or if the actions taken are not justified by legislation crafted by Congress. The President may define the operational procedures for law enforcement agencies, as this clearly falls within executive jurisdiction, but he may not legitimately grant said agencies authority to act in a manner that is not supported by law – laws that are defined not by the President, but by Congress. Ultimately, there are, in fact, few situations where the President may act in a truly independent manner – the President enforces the law; he has no authority to create the law. [8]

It is concerning that these allegations are now being raised, when the political climate is more favorable for them to do so. While Conyers’ proposal seems to go to great lengths to appear non-partisan, it worries me that up five of the nine members of the commission may come from one party, while a quorum for decisions requires only five members; it is not much of a stretch to presume that the five partisans could easily override the objections of their opposing counterparts, simply by declaring a quorum when only they were present to vote on decisions. Superficially, of course, their arguments are likely to be structured along supposedly objective parameters, but does this not skirt dangerously close to manipulating the situation to punish and/or discredit political opponents? If the commission recommends legal proceedings against the targets of their investigations, and if the only targets of their investigations are members of the political opposition, how long before such commissions become commonplace whenever a new administration arrives on the scene? Or will such commissions be used to oust the opposition entirely? That the charges come from a group created by the so-called representatives of the people is no mitigating factor; this sort of behavior is dangerous, no matter who engages in it. If we, as a nation and as individuals, are not careful, we may be watching the gradual erosion of free and critical thought – and this notion disturbs me above all. How long will it be, before I need to look over my shoulder on a regular basis because I openly criticize the administration and Congress? I hope that I do not live to see such a day, for it will surely mean that our Republic is dead.

Notes:

[1]: CNN article, 05 May 2009.

[2]: Minitrue is Newspeak [*] for the Ministry of Truth, from George Orwell’s novel, 1984. In the novel, Minitrue is actually responsible for disinformation (in a literal sense, it is responsible for propagating falsehoods), though in a more subtle sense, it is is responsible for disseminating the truth, in that it provides information that is universally considered to be true. In this sense, Minitrue is literally responsible for creating the truth (truth, in this case, being that which is accepted to be true, not necessarily what is true).

[3]: Description of Senator Leahy’s proposal here, from The Huffington Post, 05 May 2009. Descrption of Representative Conyer’s proposal here, from The Atlantic.

[4]: Full text of H.R. 104 available here, from the Library of Congress website.

[5]: Summary of the provisions for H.R. 3162 available here, from the Library of Congress website (full text is also available); the quasi-official title of the act stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act – USA PATRIOT Act. Someone’s brain was firing on all cylinders that day.

[6]: Roll call vote results available here, from the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives website.

[7]: Roll call vote results available here, from the U.S. Senate website.

[8]: See Article II of the U.S. Constitution; the President has no legislative authority under the provisions of the Constitution. The Constitution clearly and unambiguously invests sole legislative authority with Congress, via the provisions of Article I (“All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States…” [Emphasis added])

[*]: If you do not know what this is, read (or re-read) the appendix to 1984, which is an essay entitled, The Principles of Newspeak. Basically, this is Orwell’s explanation of Newspeak, and its significance within the novel world – not to mention analyzing the implications of manipulated language, in general.

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3 Responses to “Minitrue”

  1. MI Says:

    1. In Conyers’ proposal, of the actions it targets, only “domestic warrantless surveillance” would appear to be relevant to the PATRIOT Act. AFAIK, nobody seriously argues that any of the other actions were ever authorized by said act. Query: would striking that phrase from the bill moot the allegation of hypocrisy?

    2. Your point re. partisanship is well-taken. If a truth commission is used, we should strive to make it as non-partisan as possible. I’m not sure I mind a truth commission aimed at objectively investigating whether, in the context of the times, the decisions & actions of Bush et al were unreasonable, or imprudent, or even exceeded his powers (Congress is, after all, the “Grand Inquest of the Nation”, as Pournelle puts it). Like you, however, I do have a problem w/ a commission that’s merely a stalking horse for partisan vengeance.

    3. Insofar as we do use a truth commission, I’d prefer to see prosecutions of those it investigates permanently taken off the table, whether via pardons or via the law establishing said commission. (Preferably the former, since IIRC they’re basically irreversible & non-reviewable.)

    • seeker312 Says:

      WRT Conyers’ proposal, you’re right, and I’m fairly sure I did mention that it is (for now) quite limited in scope. There are, however, no guarantees that it will remain so limited, particularly given the unpopularity of the PATRIOT Act, and the common (mis)conception that it tramples on the liberties of loyal citizens (so far as I can tell, it doesn’t, but I, too, shared this misconception for quite awhile, until I read the damn thing). In retrospect, I probably should not have focused so much on the PATRIOT Act itself, as it does have little to do with either Conyers’ or Leahy’s demands; it was a target of convenience, but one that may come up in the near future.

      The partisan angle is more discomforting to me, as I am not entirely sure that such a commission could be non-partisan, given the current makeup of Congress, and the stipulations listed in Conyers’ proposal. Like you, I have no problem with an assessment after the fact WRT whether the President may have overstepped his Constitutional limits (such as, for example, what happened to Lincoln after he suspended habeas corpus), but even so, Lincoln’s actions deprived our own citizens of their protected rights, while the majority of the rights violations in question under Bush II et al affected non-citizens and individuals who were actively engaged in perpetrating violence against our soldiers and our overseas interests. Again, I do not mean to suggest that we can entirely ignore the rights of non-citizens, but I do not necessarily buy the argument that we need to afford them the same legal protections as those we extend to our own citizens.

      WRT prosecutions and the like, Conyers’ proposal did annoy me just a little with the provisions for potentially holding non-responders in contempt of court or the like. To attach punishment to these proceedings makes it seem less like a fact-finding commission (as I assume it is intended to be – overtly, anyways), and more like a witch-hunt. I agree that we should keep prosecutions off the table, regardless of the outcome of the investigation; at worst, the officials under review would be guilty of questionable judgement, and deserve to have this called out as such. Criminal punishment, however, seems a bit excessive, particularly if the creators of the commission wish to avoid accusations of more nefarious motivations (assuming, of course, that they are interested in avoiding such accusations, of course). Given what I’ve heard from some of those who are demanding “investigations” of these individuals, at least a few members of Congress are out for blood.

  2. MI Says:

    1. I don’t have a problem differentiating between the rights of citizens & non-citizens; given my druthers, any truth commission would recognize and work within the constraints of this paradigm.

    2. The contempt-of-court provisions are, AFAIK, standard ones for any investigatory commission, and are quite a bit different from the politicized prosecutions I’m concerned with. IMHO, such provisions are not problematic.


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