December 26, 2005
And You Think America Is Repressive?
By Thomas Bray

Spying on e-mail and cell phone traffic without a warrant. Searching offices and residences without a court order. Locking citizens away for weeks or months without filing charges.

Sound like your worst nightmare about the supposedly lawless Bush administration? Perhaps. But I refer to restrictions on civil liberties that are taking place not in the United States but, in the order in which I cited them, Canada, France and Great Britain.

All three countries are cited as moral superiors to the rogue regime in Washington, where the fascist leaders George Bush and Dick Cheney are said to be intent on fastening a reign of terror on the United States. But a brief scan of newspaper websites in those countries – something that the American mainstream media could easily have done before unleashing its own reign of terror on unsuspecting readers -- reveals that their governments have in many cases gone far beyond where the Bush-Cheney could ever dream of going.

The Canadian government has broad authority under anti-terrorism laws to intercept communications without court oversight. And, complained a Toronto Star columnist recently, “the [Canadian] government now has significant new authority to stage secret trials. In some instances, the very fact that the courts are even hearing a case may be kept secret.”

Meanwhile, the government of Jacques Chirac – who seldom loses an opportunity to lecture the United States about its supposedly dreadful policies – has reacted to the recent “intifada” in France by declaring a “state of emergency.” It allows the government to impose a curfew on communities where rioting has taken place, search for and seize evidence with no showing of probable cause, place suspects under house arrest for up to two months and otherwise ride roughshod over normal protections.

In England critics are complaining that the crown jewel of civil rights, the ancient right of habeas corpus, is at risk because of a measure allowing detention without charges for up to 28 days. The government of Tony Blair, no right wing extremist, had initially asked for 90 days. Under the Terrorism Act of 2005, moreover, demonstrations within two miles of Britain’s Parliament are forbidden, severely crimping the equally ancient right of assembly.

Just because other democracies engage in such activity isn’t necessarily a reason the United States should do so. Indeed, if France is doing it, it’s probably a good argument that we shouldn’t. Nor is it a bad thing for The New York Times to call the NSA monitoring to our attention – though one wonders why the Times sat on this supposedly important story for a year, ran it on the eve of a vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act and glossed lightly over substantial court precedent agreeing with President Bush.

As John Schmidt, a former official in the Clinton Justice Department, pointed out in a subsequent Chicago Tribune column, his boss, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, testified in the 1990s that “the Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the President has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes.” Jimmy Carter had asserted the same power when he was President.

The hysteria over Bush’s use of the National Security Agency to monitor international communications is thus likely to fade as an issue, much as the he-lied-us-into-war hysteria of prior months faded in significance as it became apparent that most of his congressional critics had interpreted the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in exactly the same fashion as the administration.

How to balance civil liberties and national security is a subject of legitimate dispute. But Americans deserve more perspective on the matter than they are getting from Bush’s critics and their megaphones in the liberal press.

Thomas Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

Thomas Bray

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