In the course of the NSA spying saga that has unfolded over the past three years, the Bush administration has benefited from the tangling of plain language and the byzantine inner-workings of Executive branch bureaucracy to shield it from public outrage.
Unlike Watergate or even the Clinton impeachment, there are no burglars or stained dresses to hook the news story onto. Those very colorful details were often used to start a discussion about the underlying issues of importance (okay, maybe the dress was pretty much the whole focus of that story, but you get the idea.) It’s just harder to follow a story when it takes three paragraphs to explain that the Undersecretary of Agency X spoke to the Junior Assistant Solicitor Y who reported to the General Counsel of the Office of Confusing.
So you throw up your hands.
Our frustration is exactly what Dick Cheney is counting on. His staff used the same strategy to keep others in the Executive Branch and Congress clueless as well. On the hill, Cheney and his right-hand man David Addington developed a deliberate strategy of limiting information and making the connections obscure, so they could do whatever they wanted. (Read: illegally spy on Americans.)
According to former Bush Administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith, “They were geniuses at this…They could divide up all these problems in the bureaucracy, ask different people to decide things in their lanes, control the facts they gave them, and then put the answers together to get the result they want.”
In 2004, with an election imminent and people in the government finally starting to talk to one another (because they were afraid of being called to testify in front of Congress) Addington apparently exploded at a meeting, shouting, “You are out…of…your…lane!”
The whole operation (creating a domestic spying program and calling it foreign, of lying to Congress about the illegal program and then getting them to legalize it anyway, of depleting civil liberties and getting the public to the look the other way) has been a cynical game of bad traffic cop led by the Vice President and supported by a small group of key advisors (remember these names for their future starring roles in a Congressional inquiry: David Addington & John Yoo.)
But despite the effort to weave a spider web of confusion around the whole thing, Bart Gellman and the Washington Post are doing their best to make sense of it. In the interest of clarity (sweet, sweet clarity) they have a convenient little timeline, an illustrated cast of characters, and one of the best political intrigue pieces in decades not to light up the 24-hour television news cycle. Why is that? Because it’s so complicated. Because they used language like “foreign surveillance” when, in fact, they meant foreign AND domestic surveillance. Get it? Well Gellman did write the book, I’ll let him explain:
That was one reason [NSA Chief Michael] Hayden hated when reporters referred to “domestic surveillance.” He made his point with a folksy analogy: He had taken “literally hundreds of domestic flights,” he said, and never “landed in Waziristan.” That sounded good. But the surveillance statutes said a warrant was required if either end of the conversation was in U.S. territory. The American side of the program — the domestic surveillance — was its distinguishing feature.
It still seems like something this revealing about the last eight years of the presidency should be making a bigger impact on the current race to fill the office. Unfortunately, lipstick dominates the conversation, rather than the Constitution.