Today’s Times editorial is a brief and clear background to the various problems associated with the “unitary executive” that It’s A Trap addresses, including domestic spying, legal justification of torture and definition of “illegal enemy combatants,” and incompetent stewardship of our shared resources.
– Government lawyers arguing that a prisoner could not testify that he was tortured by American agents, because their brutality was a secret.
– A judge dismissing another prisoner’s challenge to his detention, after a new law stripped basic rights from those Mr. Bush has designated “illegal enemy combatants.”
– The White House scorning lawmakers’ attempts to rein in Mr. Bush’s illegal domestic spying.
This is the legacy of a Republican Congress that enabled the president’s imperial visions of his authority. It leaves the new Democratic majority with much urgent, unfinished business to restore due process, civil liberties and the balance of powers.
In the heat of the midterm campaign, Congress was stampeded into establishing military courts for suspected terrorists. The measure improved on Mr. Bush’s own kangaroo courts, which were struck down by the Supreme Court. But the bill over all was a national disgrace.
Among the many things that Congress needs to fix are the bill’s broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant,” which could subject legal United States residents to summary imprisonment; its repudiation of the Geneva Conventions to allow the president to decide what prisoner abuse he will permit; its denial of the basic right of appeal to any noncitizen designated as an “illegal enemy combatant”; and its stripping of the powers of federal courts. The law is also far too lax on the use of coerced evidence and secret evidence. The definition of torture should be changed to reflect civilized norms.
We were greatly encouraged last week when Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who will head the Judiciary Committee, said fixing this bill would be a priority for his panel.
The C.I.A. Prisons
At the insistence of Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the Military Commissions Act gave legal cover to the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret illegal prisons, which house foreign citizens who are often abducted off the streets of their hometowns and brutalized. Congress should at minimum bring these prisons under the rule of law, and make sure that C.I.A. interrogators are given clear instructions comporting with American values. Ideally, Congress would investigate and decide whether this operation has any national security value, and if it doesn’t, immediately close the prisons down.
Mr. Bush personally authorized the National Security Agency to ignore federal law and eavesdrop on telephone calls and e-mail between the United States and other countries without a warrant. Republican lawmakers have introduced bills that would legalize the program after the fact. The only remotely sensible measure is from Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who has proposed forcing the eavesdropping back under the 1978 surveillance law and giving the administration a bit more flexibility to do electronic surveillance.
But we agree with Senator John Rockefeller IV, the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who says more needs to be known about the program before enacting new laws. The administration has stymied Congressional efforts to look into the spying operation, refusing even to turn over the presidential order creating it.
The Intelligence on Iraq
Nearly two and a half years ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported on the nation’s spy agencies’ prewar failure to figure out that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and promised to deliver a report on whether Mr. Bush and his team pressured the agencies to cherry-pick or hype evidence — or lied outright to Americans.
Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican head of the intelligence panel, dragged out the second phase of the report, with the aim of killing it. We hope Mr. Rockefeller finishes the job.
That will require heavy lifting on the most important section, comparing the statements of administration officials to what they knew about the intelligence. Mr. Roberts insisted that it cover every public statement by any administration official or member of Congress dating back to 1991. What President Bill Clinton or Senator Hillary Clinton said about Iraq is irrelevant. What matters is what was said by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney — who ordered the invasion of Iraq — and by their aides. We hope Mr. Rockefeller’s committee will sift through the hundreds of statements collected so far and focus on the ones that matter.
Unhappily, this is not an exhaustive list and there will be big fights over many of these issues. But it is not too late to take action. The midterm elections prove that despite all the posturing and fearmongering, the American public has not been blinded or deafened to what this country stands for and the need for truth.