Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Everybody Needs Adult Supervision

Yesterday on Hardball, Chris Matthews interviewed a former Army interrogator named Tony Lagouranis (transcript here). Lagouranis asserted that ninety percent of the prisoners he questioned at Abu Ghraib were guilty of nothing ("that may be a conservative number," he added). Far from being terrorists or even mere supporters of the insurgency, they were simply Iraqi citizens who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore got caught up in street sweeps by the US occupying forces. (He also said that, even when prisoners were involved in attacks on Americans, he never got any useful information through torture or abuse, whereas patient trust-building often worked.)

Now, in today's Times, we learn that the vast majority of supposed terrorist leads generated by the National Security Agency through spying on Americans were "dead ends," forcing the FBI to spend time and resources investigating "suspects" who turned out to be totally innocent or even non-existent:

"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."

These two stories, taken together, illustrate why neither the Bush administration nor any other government can be trusted with unchecked, unaccountable police power. When the president and his defenders say that torturing prisoners or wiretapping Americans is okay because only "people with known terrorist connections" are being targeted, the implicit premise is that those doing the targeting are infallible--that they are never going to torture, bug, or smear the reputation of anyone who doesn't deserve it.

It's implausible on its face. Now actual participants in the programs are stepping forward to explain exactly how ludicrous it is. And their criticisms are so sweeping that even if the precise details don't hold up, the problems remain obvious. Maybe ninety percent of the prisoners being abused at Abu Gharib weren't innocent; maybe it was only seventy percent or even fifty percent. Is that comforting? Would you be okay with that if one of the innocent victims was you or your son or your next-door neighbor?

Adding to the irony is the fact that the so-called conservatives who support Bush's seizure of unconstitutional powers are normally eager to rant about the fallibility of government. When it comes to welfare, the EPA, or the IRS, they collect, burnish, share, and treasure anecdotes about bureaucratic blunders and snafus to "prove" that government officials are arrogant stumblebums who can't be trusted to intervene in people's lives.

Of course, in those instances, the victims of government mistakes are either business people or, more broadly, American taxpayers--in other words, people that the conservatives identify with. So those mistakes are unforgiveable. But when it comes to brown-skinned people with Arab names who get tortured by mistake--hey, lighten up! Nobody's perfect! And don't you know there's a war on?

Would legal oversight--such as the free-and-easy oversight provided by the highly accommodating FISA court--eliminate abuse of people's rights? Of course not. But everyone is more careful about how they do their jobs when they know that someone might be looking over their shoulder. (That's why "calls may be monitored for training purposes.")

Even President Bush might think twice about some of his choices if he knew there was a chance he could face adult supervision. It's time Congress tried to provide some.

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