Liberties lost


From the Baltimore Sun

Liberties lost

July 4, 2007

Besides all his other gifts, Thomas Jefferson appears to have been prophetic.

In his first presidential inaugural address in 1801, he ticked off a long list of essential principles of government, featuring highlights of the Bill of Rights, and called preservation of the government "in its whole constitutional vigor" the "anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad." These principles "should be the creed of our political faith," he said. "Should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety."

Such moments of error or alarm have sent the government off on dangerous tangents from time to time over the years - but rarely with more wide-ranging consequences than the course embarked upon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. On this 231st anniversary of Jefferson's eloquent Declaration of Independence from British rule, the United States is desperately in need of restoring the rights and freedoms surrendered in a false bid for security that has perversely put the nation at greater risk.

Consider what has been lost.

Sweeping federal measures, most of them heavily cloaked in secrecy, have robbed Americans of privacy, due process of law, even freedom of movement. Warrantless wiretaps, e-mail surveillance, national security letters secretly demanding information on thousands of citizens and, soon to come, the equivalent of national ID cards - all would be abominations to Jefferson.

America's suspected enemies have fared worse. They have been tortured, held indefinitely without charge and spirited away to secret prisons abroad so no one knows who they are or what has happened to them.

The United States has been fortunate to have suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11, but there's little evidence that any of these extraordinary measures have had anything to do with that. What they have done is to further isolate the United States at a time when the war in Iraq has left America with no global good will to spare. And Iraq has now become a proving ground for development of terrorist weaponry, such as the roadside bomb, and tactics.

In the weeks and months after 9/11, when the Bush administration was paring back civil liberties through the cynically named Patriot Act and travelers were coping with what would become increasingly burdensome restrictions, fearful Americans were persuaded to accept the sacrifice in return for a greater measure of safety.

But Jefferson would argue that was a false choice. Liberty is the source of security. An open, accountable government is the best protection against tyranny and incompetence. Travel restrictions in the form of identity papers - aimed not at terrorists but at illegal immigrants - represent the cost of unchecked power on the quality of American life.

The portrait now emerging of Vice President Dick Cheney as the unseen hand behind many of the more outrageous violations of civil liberties, aided in part by Alberto R. Gonzales, the lapdog of an attorney general, powerfully underscores Jefferson's point that the time has come to retrace these missteps and get back on the road to peace, liberty and safety.

Congress, now in Democratic hands partly because of a backlash at these heavy-handed tactics, should begin the process by getting out all the facts. Americans have a right - and a responsibility - to know what's being done in their name and what effect it's having.

Some might argue that such a public review would allow America's enemies to learn its secrets. Experience suggests, though, that secrecy often shields abuse and simple bungling. For example, Justice Department auditors reported in March that the FBI had misused, sometimes illegally, the national security letters through which it demands, with no prior court approval and no notice to the individual involved, personal information about Americans. The FBI acknowledges perhaps 1,000 such instances.

America's history of violating constitutional restraints in times of perceived peril is a long one. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus protections against unlawful detention during the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Japanese-Americans confined to camps during World War II. The FBI's history of misdeeds has roots that predate its creation, when J. Edgar Hoover, who would later become the bureau's first director, used a Justice Department perch to send federal agents on a brutal crackdown of more than 10,000 suspected communists in 1919.

During the Cold War and turmoil of the Vietnam War era, Mr. Hoover's FBI would direct its anti-subversive energies at alleged spies, war protesters and civil rights activists as well as suspected communists.

Records released last week detail a similarly sordid history of the CIA's stepping over constitutional hurdles to plot the assassination of foreign leaders, spy on American journalists and political dissidents, and confine a Soviet defector for three years before he was released without charges.

Public outrage at the discovery of such clandestine abuses has typically resulted in the sort of corrective action Jefferson recommended. Such a process may be under way soon again as Congress and the courts begin to apply some restraints on an administration that as much as or more than any other has considered itself above the law. There's little time to waste before Americans become so accustomed to their lost liberty that the loss becomes acceptable.

A government that spies upon its citizens, evades the courts and feels no compulsion to explain itself beyond vague warnings of security threats must be brought into check. The damage caused by terrorists on 9/11 begins to pale against the havoc wreaked upon America by America itself.


Damage caused by terrorists sitting in the White House and elsewhere on 9/11 begins to pale against the havoc wreaked upon America by America itself.

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