Frightening people to subvert the Constitution

Those who justify giving the government sweeping powers of spying, arrest, detention, torture, and even killing usually resort to three kinds of arguments.

td051224.jpg The first is the extreme hypothetical: concocting some bizarre scenario (“A nuclear bomb is going to explode in New York City in one hour and only a captured terrorist knows where it is and how to defuse it.”) in which the only options seem to be torture or worse. The second is scaremongering, using inflammatory language to exaggerate beyond recognition either the powers of terrorists in general or some specific threat that was supposedly foiled by the authorities (Remember that Jose Padilla was originally supposed to have plans to detonate a ‘dirty bomb.’ That charge has been quietly dropped.) The third is to argue from the negative (“We don’t know, or can’t tell you, how many dastardly plots have been foiled or deterred by these government actions so we should fall on our knees in thanks to the government for carrying out these illegal actions that may have saved our lives.”)

It is curious how these apologists for government abuses display a kind of whimpering, fearful attitude that requires them to view the President as their protector, rather than finding strength within themselves, and in their neighbors, the legal system, and the Constitution.

As examples of the above points, see this exchange between former Republican Congressman Bob Barr and current Republican Congressman Dana Rohrbacher on the CNN program Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer on December 16, 2005. (You can see the video here.) I have highlighted some key portions and corrected some obvious misattributions to some of the statements.

Barr forcefully makes the case far better than I can why the government wiretapping story is a scandal. Rohrbacher, on the other hand, weaves all those three strands of arguments into his responses, falling back on the usual hypotheticals, scaremongering, and distortions to essentially argue that the President can do whatever he wants, irrespective what the laws and the Constitution says. Notice how often Rohrbacher brings up the foiled plot to “blow up the Brooklyn Bridge.” Barr gives him his comeuppance on this right at the end.

BLITZER: Americans spying on Americans. In a story first reported today by the “New York Times” and confirmed by our own sources here at CNN, President Bush is said to have authorized the super secret National Security Agency to conduct electronic eavesdropping here at home. The president is saying only that he won’t discuss ongoing intelligence operations. 

Joining us now are two conservative Republicans who have very different views on this issue. From Atlanta, the former Congressman and CNN contributor, Bob Barr, and from Capitol Hill, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Congressman Barr, what’s wrong with what the president has decided to do?

BOB BARR, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: What’s wrong with it is several-fold. One, it’s bad policy for our government to be spying on American citizens through the National Security Agency. Secondly, it’s bad to be spying on Americans without court oversight. And thirdly, it’s bad to be spying on Americans apparently in violation of federal laws against doing it without court order. 

So it’s bad all around, and we need to get to the bottom of this.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Congressman Rohrabacher — I suspect you don’t.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER, (R) CALIFORNIA: No. What’s really bad is the fact that we have an evil opponent who wants to blow us up and that six months after 3,000 of our American citizens were slaughtered right in front of our eyes, that we were confronted with this challenge. I’m really sorry that we have this kind of evil enemy that wants to slaughter us, but I’m very happy that we have a president that, six months after they slaughtered 3,000 of our citizens, he decided to follow up on a lead that was given to our people by breaking up an al Qaeda cell in Pakistan, and followed through on that to make sure that there wasn’t another imminent attack, and thus probably saving many thousands of American lives. We can be proud of President Bush for protecting us. 

BLITZER: Congressman Barr, what do you say? 

BARR: Well, the fact of the matter is that the Constitution is the Constitution, and I took an oath to abide by it. My good friend, my former colleague, Dana Rohrabacher, did and the president did. And I don’t really care very much whether or not it can be justified based on some hypothetical. The fact of the matter is that, if you have any government official who deliberately orders that federal law be violated despite the best of motives, that certainly ought to be of concern to us. 

ROHRABACHER: 9/11 is not a hypothetical. We are at war.

BARR: No, but the hypothetical is the — the other cases you were talking about. 

ROHRABACHER: Bob, now that we are at war, that is not hypothetical. We have an enemy that has decided that they’re going to terrorize the American population by committing mass murder. That is not hypothetical. We are at war, and sometimes at war you — 

BARR: No, what you were saying, Dana, is that there were other case — those are hypothetical — 

ROHRABACHER: No, that’s not — Bob, you haven’t read this. No, that’s not hypothetical at all. One of the cases that was involved in this, was someone who was attempting to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and because of these wire taps, we were able to stop that. 

BARR: No, you’re wrong there, Dana. First of all –

ROHRABACHER: And by the way, how do we know who wasn’t deterred from blowing up other targets. The fact is –

BARR: Well, gee, I guess then the president should be able to ignore whatever provision in the Constitution as long as there’s something after the fact that justifies it. 

ROHRABACHER: Bob, during wartime, you give some powers to the presidency you wouldn’t give in peace time.

BARR: Do we have a declaration of war, Dana? 

ROHRABACHER: You don’t have to do that. 

BARR: We don’t? That makes it even much easier for a president.

ROHRABACHER: No, you just have to make sure that the people of the United States understand that we are at war. They understand that al Qaeda slaughtered 3,000 of our citizens — more people than the Japanese slaughtered at Pearl Harbor. 

BLITZER: Congressman — let me interject for a second, Congressman Rohrabacher. 


BLITZER: Everything you say is true, but why not go through the process of either getting new legislation authorizing this or let the court orders be fully implemented? In other words, before the NSA goes and eavesdrops on Americans, get a court order? 

ROHRABACHER: First of all, let us note that all this eavesdropping on Americans were that, there were some people living in the United States, whether they’re American citizens or not — we don’t know how many are American citizens — that were involved with contacts overseas. This is eavesdropping on people who were doing international calls and the list that we got, came from what — came from an al Qaeda cell that we broke up in Pakistan. 

I am very pleased that our president didn’t wait around but, instead, ran right forward immediately to try to follow up on this and find out what they were planning. I believe he probably thwarted several major attacks by doing that.

BLITZER: Congressman Barr, do you want to respond to that? 

BARR: Here again, this is absolutely a bizarre conversation where you have a member of Congress saying that it’s okay for the president of the United States to ignore U.S. law, to ignore the Constitution, simply because we are in an undeclared war. 

The fact of the matter is the law prohibits — specifically prohibits — what apparently was done in this case, and for a member of Congress to say, oh, that doesn’t matter, I’m proud that the president violated the law is absolutely astounding, Wolf.

ROHRABACHER: Not only proud, we can be grateful to this president. You know, I’ll have to tell you, if it was up to Mr. Schumer, Senator Schumer, they probably would have blown up the Brooklyn Bridge. The bottom line is this: in wartime we expect our leaders, yes, to exercise more authority. 

Now, I have led the fight to making sure there were sunset provisions in the Patriot Act, for example. So after the war, we go back to recognizing the limits of government. But we want to put the full authority that we have and our technology to use immediately to try to thwart terrorists who are going to — how about have a nuclear weapon in our cities?

BARR: And the Constitution be damned, Dana?

ROHRABACHER: Well, I’ll tell you something, if a nuclear weapon goes off in Washington, DC, or New York or Los Angeles, it’ll burn the Constitution as it does. So I’m very happy we have a president that’s going to wiretap people’s communication with people overseas to make sure that they’re not plotting to blow up one of our cities. 

BLITZER: We’re out of time, but Bob Barr, I’ll give you the last word. 

BARR: Well, first of all, or last of all, this so-called plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge was bogus because it had to do with a group of idiots who were planning to dismantle it with blow torches.

Rohrbacher has to know full well that there was no plot to “blow up” the Brooklyn Bridge but keeps saying it because of the scary image it produces in people minds, especially when coupled with repeated mentions of nuclear weapons. The plot that was supposedly uncovered was a plan to use blow torches to bring it down, a harebrained scheme is there ever was one. Note that in the original news story on this on June 15, 2004, this was relegated to a passing mention near the end of the article, which indicates how insignificant this threat was viewed then. It is only later that people like Rohrbacher, in their efforts to support unbridled presidential power, have elevated this to a major plan to “blow up” the bridge.

People like Rohrbacher know that if you repeat a falsehood long enough, it becomes part of the public consciousness. This is why you need journalists who know the facts and can (and more importantly will) challenge such falsehoods as soon as they are uttered. Unfortunately not many do. It tends to be the bloggers who are keeping track of the details.

As Atrios points out:

“They keep reminding us that Bush’s illegal wiretap plan uncovered a dastardly plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge. Said plot involved bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge with blow torches. It’s rather like busting me for my evil plot to blackmail the world’s governments for ONE MILLION DOLLARS by threatening to send the moon crashing into the Earth.

But, either way, that isn’t the issue. The president broke the law. Repeatedly.”


  1. Joe says

    This is a lot like Senator Frist saying that we as a country need to tighten our belts and reduce spending. Meanwhile he and a lot of other congressmen voted to increase spending while simultaneously cutting taxes a few years ago (negative plus negative = BIG NEGATIVE, not positive). Most politicians are the same, finger to the wind, sort who senses the public’s growing distrust for Bush and want to get in on the action.

  2. says

    There’s another argument I like to throw at people who show such flagrant disregard for process. All of that process is there to protect us from the person at the top, whoever that person may be in future. So dropping all of my mistrust of the current President, how would these same people feel if a successor of whom they were less fond were to start using Bush’s methods as precedents? What if we had a future President Michael Moore?

    It’s a bit like Rawlins’ ideas of moral systems that you presented a few months ago: it’s important to get the system right regardless of which individual is in which role.

  3. says


    I have always been puzzled by those people who cannot see the obviousness of what you are saying, that we should not base our security and laws on particular people (whom we personally approve of) being in power. Why is that such a hard idea to accept?

  4. James Chang says

    The question on whether the next conservative, liberal, or even independent president will use the same methods as the current administration depends on whatever events that could likely occur during their term of office.

    It is obviously important that we follow the rule of law and any established checks and balances to ensure that the citizens of this country are accorded their full rights and privileges. The problem is whether the next terrorist incident that utilizes chemical or radiological material will persuade the politicians to give up more citizen rights to protect this nation. Sure, we can forgo some rights to ensure our safety and way of life, but the question is how much of it should we give up?

    Furthermore, what if another attack happens? Should we give up more rights, or perhaps we should then focus on why it happened in the first place despite the strengthening of our current law enforcement apparatus.

    I find it also unsettling that Vice President Cheney went ahead and stated that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented if the administration had the power to secretly monitor conversations without court orders. Did the commission clearly conclude that it was the bureaucratic problems — not a lack of information — was responsible for the security breakdown? Plus it did have a secret court to go to for permissions to conduct clandestine surveillance in the US. Now it wants to circumvent that court.

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