Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanks for the First Amendment

Let us give thanks for the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment is the foundation of the planet’s longest-lasting constitutional democracy. Within specific limits drawn over centuries, we can argue that the president is the spawn of Satan, worship toads, or publicly declare our support or condemnation of having sex with children.

The First Amendment protects the expression of ideas that might not sit all that well with the powers to be, whether governmental or as reflected in society. This once allowed a group of Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill, a largely Jewish community. It also allows anyone to advocate the violent overthrow of the government.

This virtually unbridled freedom is unique in the world. That it enables promulgation of ideas and words and pictures that almost anyone would find repugnant is a small price to pay for protection against the greatest tool of political repression: censorship of ideas. As has been made clear by centuries of experience, democracy cannot exist when people are denied the right to exchange ideas and openly argue their worth.

These principles are held so fundamental they are inculcated almost as soon a child can read and write. But they are ignored or even scoffed at by many sophisticated Western nations, our nation’s political and cultural allies.

This was clearly illustrated earlier this week when the British government warned news organizations they would be breaking the law if they publish details of a leaked document said to disclose President Bush wanted to bomb Arabic television station Al Jazeera. First published in the Daily Mirror newspaper, the document went on to say that Bush withdrew his idea only at the insistence of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A former parliamentary aide and a civil servant were charged with a violation of Britain’s Official Secrets Acts, specifically a ``damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations.'' Thus, David Keogh and Leo O’Connor could go to prison for distributing a document that would do no more harm than cause embarrassment for the American president.

The Official Secrets Acts were first passed in 1911 so they are not a reaction to modern terrorism in an Internet age. They also allow the government to ban the news media from publishing stories the government deems not in its interests -- something called prior restraint, which cannot occur in the U.S. Great Britain has no written constitution, let alone a codified bill of rights. And one of its national legislative chambers is called the House of Lords, none of whose members are elected by the people they govern and have broad veto powers.

In the U.S., governments of both major political parties have sought to limit public scrutiny of their workings or their documents. But the First Amendment also allows citizens to seek redress in the courts and refer to that amendment as the reason they seek openness from those who govern them. Time and again the courts have ruled that the Constitution sets transparency as the default judgment in such cases.

Even when a political administration invokes the principle of “executive privilege” to keep private records of conversations such as those at issue in the UK case, it must justify its decision to a judge. And there is no law preventing an administration from releasing such documents.

At a time of year when we are supposed to reflect and give thanks for what enriches us, it is appropriate to be grateful for the fundamental freedoms given to us by the drafters of the First Amendment and to the elected officials who endorsed it. Without it the democracy we enjoy would not exist.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Email Stupidity

Washington super-lobbyist Michael Scanlon has pleaded guilty to charges he conspired to defraud Indian tribes of more than $19 million.

Why did he not take his case to trial? Probably because of a series of emails to partner Jack Abramoff in which he expressed boundless glee at pulling off his scam."I want all their money!!!" he declared in one. "Weeez gonna be rich!!!" read another.

Despite the number of big timers currently dressed in brightly colored prison jumpsuits because of a poor email decision, people continue to archive their felonious feelings as bits and bytes on some anonymous computer. Why?

First is hubris. Every one of them believes their scam is so impenetrable that there's no reason for discretion. Aren't they smarter than some $60,000-a-year FBI agent or assistant U.S. Attorney? The answer usually comes to them as a pistol-packing civil servant grabs their arm and guides them through a perp walk.

Sometimes they actually believe it's perfectly OK to bribe, steal and cheat so they don't care what they write. Many criminal defense attorneys prefer representing professional killers to working with white-collar crooks because they are tired of hearing: "Everybody does it. Why are they picking on me?"

A prosecutor once told me, "If it wasn't for snitches and the generally stupid behavior of crooks I'd be out of work." He might want to add 'email trails' to the list. Or is that part of the stupidity factor?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Desperate Tactics

Conservative Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., stood before microphones and, his voice choked with emotion, declared American troops should be withdrawn from Iraq “as soon as is practicable.” Literally moments after he stepped away, no fewer than 14 Republicans lined up to denounce not only Murtha’s position but his personal integrity.

Rep. Jean Smith, R-Ohio, the most junior member of Congress, said she received a telephone call from a Marine colonel after the speech. "He asked me to send Congress a message: stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: Only cowards cut and run, Marines never do,” she declared. The White House lashed out with an ad hominen attack on Murtha, labeling him a liberal who sympathized with the opinions of “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker Michael Moore.

The Republican House leadership pushed forward a resolution deliberately and inaccurately labeled as Murtha’s, that called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Iraq. It was resoundingly defeated.

Unfortunately for his rabid and thoughtless critics, Murtha, 73, spent 40 years in the Marine Corps and the corps’ reserve, fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars and was wounded in both, earning two Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star. Since he was elected in 1973 he has been one of the U.S. Military’s staunchest supporters on the House Appropriations Committee.

The GOP reaction to this event is akin to the last-ditch tactic used by a military unit about to be annihilated by a superior force: throw all resources into an attack hoping the other side will be so confused it crumbles. A combat veteran, Murtha would recognize the tactic.

And, as a veteran leader in both war and poltics, he won't be confused and will continue to hold his ground.

Monday, November 07, 2005

California Election Predictions

1. Whoever loses tomorrow will claim the other side used sleazy tactics and misleading advertisements to gull the voters.

2. If the proposition stripping the legislature of its redistricting powers passes, lawsuits will fly claiming it violates who knows how many other parts of the State Constitution.

3. Most taxpayers will forget the election cost them more than $50 million which could have been better spent on other things they really wanted -- regardless of what they wanted.

4. Countless news publications will once again question whether the California is governable by any kind of system.

Cynical? No. Just experienced.