Update: House Democrats fail to act on Guantánamo, Iraq or domestic spying

5.8.07

Despite claims last week by House Representative John Murtha (D-Pa.) that he would put forward amendments to the administration’s colossal Defense Appropriations bill (see article here), the House of Representatives rolled over last night and passed the proposed legislation by 395 votes to 13, and Murtha, who had actually prepared the amendments to close Guantánamo within six months, and to require troops be fully trained and equipped before going to fight in Iraq, withdrew them, according to Theday.com, because he “fac[ed] the prospects of losing votes and inflaming partisan tensions.”

Highlighting the Democrats’ general spinelessness –- and also indicating how politicians of all hues are still swayed by the President’s bellicose, xenophobic paranoia –- the House also followed the lead established in the Senate on Friday, approving, by 227 votes to 183, the President’s plans to “expand the government’s abilities to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign suspects whose communications pass through the United States,” and thereby choosing hollow rhetoric –- Bush’s metronomic pronouncement that “Protecting America is our most solemn obligation” –- over more rational fears, expressed by many of the Democrats and also by civil liberties groups, that the bill “goes too far, possibly enabling the government to wiretap US residents communicating with overseas parties without adequate oversight from courts or Congress,” and that it is “not limited to terror suspects and could have wider applications.”

Dissenting Democrats at least won a few concessions in negotiations earlier in the week, insisting that any proposals for new wiretaps must be approved not just by the unraveling Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, but also by the director of national intelligence, but there was, overall, little enthusiasm for the concerns expressed by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who said during the debate that preceded the vote, “This bill would grant the attorney general the ability to wiretap anybody, any place, any time without court review, without any checks and balances. I think this unwarranted, unprecedented measure would simply eviscerate the 4th Amendment,” which, as the Associated Press put it, “prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Any confrontation between Democrats and the administration will now have to wait until after the summer recess, when the President’s 2008 funding for Iraq and Afghanistan will come under scrutiny, and “surges” and “timetables for withdrawal” will once more be the subject of semi-inscrutable pronouncements with too many sub-clauses. I can hardly wait.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

A combination of this article, and House Democrats take on Cheney over Guantánamo and Iraq, was published on CounterPunch (as “Why Do We Need the Democrats? House Democrats Fail to Restrain Bush on Guantánamo, Iraq or Domestic Spying”).

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  2. Andy Worthington says...

    After this article was published on Counterpunch, I received the following comments:

    Richard Smith wrote, “[C. Wright] Mills had it right, 60 years ago, with The Power Elite and The Causes of World War Three. The masses have no influence, as the recent elections prove. The power elite, who control the Congress, want and have continual war.”

    Dr. P. Wilkinson wrote, “The only things the US is still missing are Britain’s draconian Official Secrets Act, a reversal of the burden of proof at libel and a constitution of the Star Chamber. The Holy Office was long active in Brazil and much of Latin America. The US had to rely on lynching and witch hunts. Modernisation would mean giving the President all those organs officially to perform the tasks his handlers are doing clandestinely. The Democrats are certainly as willing to accept ‘Crown’ repression as the Republicans. Separation of powers – supposedly a hallmark of US constitutionalism – has given way entirely to something like the ‘President in Congress’ – with Cheney doing a bad imitation of Walsingham and George Bush as a more powerful if even more second-rate Richard III. What is that old saying about history repeating itself as…

    I find it frightfully amusing every time there is some dreadful legislation passed in the silly season and just before recess. It is as if after two hundred years no one in opposition ever noticed this tactic for pushing through legislation. Everyone is always so ‘surprised.’ Of course it offers every one an excuse for doing nothing if the passage of infamous legislation somehow is engineered by whips who know when the legislature is going to be least attentive. Maybe one should just forbid legislatures to recess at all. Let them legislate unto exhaustion, whereupon their out-legislated corpses can then be properly removed as befits persons of their dignities.”

    Peter Lushing challenged my assertion that holding detainees because they were too dangerous to release, but not dangerous enough to be charged was “bizarre”: “Your Counterpunch assertion that it is bizarre to deem somebody dangerous enough to detain at Guantánamo even if they are not charged with crime – I respectfully disagree. People caught in situations of preparation or alignment with terror fighters vs the US might not have committed a provable war crime of the type that is within Gitmo jurisdiction. I think the larger point is that dissymetries between criminal justice due process and defending against terrorists raise difficult and important questions, not answerable by labels such as “bizarre.” I’ve been following these issues carefully and generally find that the Left is prone to sloppy thinking easily as much as the Right. Maybe that is why the bills re eavesdropping passed last week?”

    In brief response, I have to insist that I do find it bizarre – and, in fact, criminally irresponsible – to detain people because they are too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be charged. If this happened in any other context than the amplified paranoia surrounding the “War on Terror,” it would be called internment, and would recall, for example, the gross injustice perpetrated against Japanese Americans in World War II.

    The most pithy response was from Janet Contursi, who wrote, “And let’s not hold our breaths – we all know that in September the invertebrate Democrats will cave and cave again. As a cynic, I’m guessing that the Democrats don’t really want to curb Bush’s imperial presidency – they want to inherit it.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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