David Adler: Lessons from Sen. Church needed still today

December 12, 2013 

Sen. Frank Church’s irrepressible belief in American democracy, manifested in his sturdy commitment to the idea that the United States’ national security policies should reflect the iconic principles of our nation — constitutionalism, the rule of law and republican values — was warmly invoked this week at a conference bearing his name, as a reminder that the protection of our nation needn’t come at the expense of our ideals. After all, what is America if liberty is sacrificed on the altar of national security?

Discussions at the 30th annual Frank Church Conference, “Watching the Watchers: Security v. Liberty,” provided a sobering reminder that the U.S. government, acting in the name of national security, has on occasion lost its constitutional compass. In times of crisis — real or imagined — officials have ignored constitutional restraints, engaged in blatant disregard of Americans’ civil liberties and exhibited indifference to the rule of law and the separation of powers.

The tendency toward repression in the context of war and crisis, captured in the ancient conclusion that, “in times of war, the laws disappear,” emerged in America at the dawn of the republic. In 1798, in the middle of war with France, Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, made it a crime to criticize American officials in a way that would undermine the government’s reputation, despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The historical files are thick with details of governmental attacks on civil liberties. In World War I, President Woodrow Wilson prosecuted with a vengeance dozens of dissidents who merely dared to criticize the conduct of the war. The internment of Japanese-American citizens in World War II, one of the most flagrant violations of the rights of American citizens ever inflicted by the U.S. government, was couched in rationales (specious upon cursory review) that advanced national security interests and dismissed liberties as inconveniences to be hurdled.

The Cold War paved the way for “McCarthyism,” which cast a dark shadow across America’s democratic landscape and eclipsed fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of association and due process of law. In that dark era of repression and exaggeration, dissident speech was considered synonymous with the advocacy of communist doctrines, which was made a federal crime. In 1974, Americans learned that the Nixon administration and the CIA had conducted a massive domestic surveillance program on thousands of anti-war activists.

Those revelations led to the creation in 1975 of the Church Committee, which disclosed the sordid acts undertaken by the intelligence community in the name of national security. Among its lessons was the need for the governed to monitor their governors. That’s the price of accountability.

The historical lapse of constitutional judgment that gave rise to these, and more recent, invasions of our liberties, including those perpetrated since 9-11, has followed a familiar pattern.

At bottom, governmental officials have erected a platform of unquestioning deference to executive determinations of national security. Acceptance of the premise is followed by acceptance of tactics. In our time, extraordinary rendition, dark prisons and a vacuum-cleaner approach to electronic surveillance, each of which is constitutionally indefensible, enjoy an unsettling degree of public acceptance.

There is, in the maintenance of liberty, an expectation of governmental accountability to the public. In times of perceived crises, however, the citizenry has been surprisingly silent. But silence has its price. Robert Maynard Hutchins, a visionary educational leader at the University of Chicago, was probably correct when he declared: “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush, it will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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