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I Spy

Christopher Brauchli

Some of these men had become abstrusely entangled with the spying departments of other nations and would give an amusing jump if you came from behind and tapped them on the shoulder.

- Vladimir Nabokov, The Assistant Producer

The surprising thing was that it was a surprise. It just goes to show that it's hard to predict who will be embarrassed by what disclosures when governments operate outside the law.

Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq, was distressed to learn from reading Bob Woodward's recent book, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, that George Bush spied on Iraqi citizens just as he had spied on U.S. citizens. That should not have come as much of a surprise since if George & Co. had few compunctions about spying on its own citizens there was little reason to think it would not have had even fewer compunctions about spying on Iraqi citizens, more especially since they lack the veneer of protection of that Bush-discredited document, the United States Constitution. The discreditation of the United States Constitution in favor of spying and other extra-judicial conduct began early in the Bush administration.

On December 16, 2005, we learned from the New York Times that George Bush had signed a secret order in 2002 that authorized the National Security Agency to listen in on phone conversations held by citizens and non-citizens alike even though some with old-fashioned ideas of life in the United States believed such conduct was legally proscribed. According to that report the NSA "has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible dirty numbers' linked to Al Qaeda."

As with much of what George Bush has done during his 8-year tenure, the spying was not without its critics. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said: "This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration. It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans."

On June 25, 2008 it was reported that the House Appropriations Committee had approved an amendment denying money for the "National Applications Office." According to the report that office is a Bush administration program expanding the use of Pentagon spy satellites for domestic uses. Jane Harmon, a California Democrat, chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on intelligence. Explaining the Committee's action she told Newsweek: "We have to make sure this is not a back door for spying on Americans." She and her colleagues worried that this program might be used to impinge on civil liberties since, as with all things in the Bush administration, things that look and quack like ducks often are described by the administration as being swans. In light of the foregoing it is hard to say why the Iraqis are so upset by Mr. Woodward's book.

According to the Woodward book, the United States spied on Prime Minister al-Maliki, his staff and other government officials. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Maliki was very upset at the disclosure. An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh said if the Woodward allegations were true, it would be evidence of a lack of trust. (That is the sort of thing that a typical American citizen said when learning that he or she was susceptible to unlawful spying by George Bush or that concerned Jane Harmon when learning of the newest proposal.) Mr. al-Dabbagh went on to state that "It reflects also that the institutions in the United States are used to spy on their friends and their enemies in the same way."

Not all of the Iraqi spokespersons were as concerned as al-Dabbagh. Employing the common technique of telling the press something the speaker is not authorized to tell the press by not letting the press disclose the identity of the speaker, an anonymous "top aide to al-Maliki said: "If this is true, then we feel sorry about that. We look upon the Americans as our partners. There's nothing of real value that would require the Americans to spy on us. On top of that, we have nothing to hide from the Americans to make them have to spy on us." A less circumspect prominent Kurdish lawmaker, Mahmoud Othman said: "If it is true, it is very dangerous and we will condemn it because how can a friend spy on you? This is unacceptable for us."

I have news for Mr. Othman. It is unacceptable for American citizens too. George Bush will never be asked to explain how a friend can spy on you. He will never be asked to explain how a United States president can spy on his own citizens. The fact that he did it will simply become part of his legacy.


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