Thursday, June 28, 2007

Behind Closed Doors

In the last week or so, there has been a lot of important talk taking place behind closed doors. A former attorney general, John Ashcroft, met with members of Congress, in closed session, presumably to disclose why he refused to sign off on the president's NSA domestic surveillance program, and who tried to bully him in to submission. We, who pay his salary, were not privy to that discussion. No doubt, Ashcroft spoke, too, about the original program, and what it contained, in depth.

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to the executive branch, including the president and vice president, as well as the Justice Department. These subpoenas, no doubt, also arise from testimony which took place in secret. Defiance of Senate subpoenas casts a long shadow on the Bush White House's previous efforts to depict itself as the high priestess of putative transparency.

Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, describes the efforts of this administration to cover their tracks, and to avoid testifying as "stonewalling of the worst kind." (NYT) Indeed, Mr. Leahy is being kind. This isn't just about stonewalling, or evasion; the efforts of this administration are nothing short of subrogation of the process of discovery, and are in contempt of Congress.. And, while he may contest his parking space in the executive branch, no one but the vice president can deny that he's become too big for his britches; indeed, Mr. Cheney has become Richard Nixon on human growth hormones.

But, the refusal to comply with demands for information, and/or release of documents, as well as an almost aberrational insistence on private meetings aren't limited to the executive branch, and the Justice Department. Earlier this month during his confirmation hearings, the incoming counsel of the CIA, John Rizzo, refused to answer some "tougher" questions, on the NSA program, by the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying he preferred to respond "in closed session." (NYT) One wonders just how much testimony about unwarranted, and unlawful interception of e-mails and telephone communications will be heard secretly, as well as how much information about which telecommunication companies were co-respondents, and enablers, of this program will surface, how much will be suppressed and whether or not the American public will have to wait another 30 odd years for these "family jewels" to surface, too.

Senator Charles Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reportedly confessed that "alarm bells went off" when he first heard former deputy attorney general, James Comey's testimony about the Gonzales hospital visit to John Ashcroft, and that it seemed to him "clear that there had been an effort to circumvent the law." (NYT) While we applaud the expressions of outrage made by members of the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, one can't help but wonder why there isn't a more aggressive push for transparency, and the admission of the press, as well as public hearings? After all, the Committee for Un-American Activities met in open session, and I, for one, can't recall any activities, with the exception of the burglary at Watergate, more "un-American" than the ones we've witnessed in t he past 6 plus years.

While we may be incapable of doing a fast rewind on the Ashcroft closed door hearing, as well as any others, Cryptome reports that there will be a meeting of the Defense Science Board, a panel of about 40 that advises the Pentagon on scientific, or manufacturing acquistion matters of national security, "in closed session" from August 6-16th at the Beckman Center in Irvine, California. The role of the DSB, as Undersecretary of Defense, Kenneth J. Krieg, sees it is to address the "growing threat of missiles, information warfare and biological, chemical, and nuclear weaponry."

With the growing recognition of a failed mission in Iraq, and troop withdrawal all but inevitable, as well as the growing plausibility of some military action against Iran and North Korea, and with all the so-called interest in citizen vigilance to avoid another terrorist attack, how ironic that "all sessions of these (Defense Science Board) meetings will be closed to the public. " Arguably, there are times when release of certain information will pose a clear and present danger to our national security, but at the moment, withholding of information poses a far greater challenge to our own security, as well as world peace.

Whether it's testimony, in Washington, D.C., about tweaking borderline legislation so that it has the illusion of legality, or a Defense Science Board meeting, in Southern California, to discuss "Challenges to Military Operations in Support of National Interests," when information is privileged, and access restricted, oversight can be nothing more than an abstraction.