Ministry of Information Retrieval

Friday, May 19, 2006

Originally published: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Interviewer: Mr. Helpmann, what would
you say to those critics who maintain
that the Ministry Of Information has
become too large and unwieldy ...?

Helplmann: David ... in a free society
information is the name of the game.
You can't win the game if you're a man short.
-- From "Brazil"

Newsweek's Michael Hirsh makes this chilling assessment:

The Bush administration calls the war on terror "the long war." But if we are to take the president and his aides at their word, it is more like a permanent war, one that by definition can never end…. And that means the extraordinary powers that George W. Bush has arrogated to himself "during wartime"—including the surveillance of Americans—could become permanent as well. It all sounds frighteningly Orwellian.

Then ironically deduces:

But the truth is that, for all the hue and cry over American civil liberties, we are a long way from Big Brother today. In fact, we could probably use a little more Big Brother about now.

Hirsh has a point. We have not perfectly manifested Orwell's gravest fears. The dystopian vision we are rapidly devolving towards is more akin to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." In "Wanted: Competent Big Brothers," Hirsh addresses an information gathering apparatus that can't seem to find its ass with both hands. For all the pronouncements of "saving thousands of lives," the Bush Administration has put in place a system drowning in data and producing almost no useful intelligence. That they might accidentally torture to death some poor Mr. Buttle, in place of Mr. Tuttle, because of a data entry error, seems to be a conservative prediction of just how dangerous their abuse of power can become.

Plastic surgery today?

Plastic surgery tomorrow?

We also learn from Mr. Hirsh that the very Orwellian sounding Total Information Awareness system, concocted by the felonious Iran-Contra figure Adm. John Poindexter, has survived it's Congressional assassination attempt and is hiding in the Pentagon under the code name "Topsail."

Hirsh is wrong that 9/11 has necessitated the consolidation of power in the executive branch. The "War on Terra" has simply provided cover for a power grab plotted by Mr. Cheney and his nefarious cohorts for some time. As John Dean explains in FindLaw:

Long before 9/11, Cheney was pushing this cause.

To understand Cheney's position, he suggests that others "go back and look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra report, [and] you'll see a strong statement about the president's prerogatives and responsibilities in the foreign policy/national security area in particular."

If one does as Cheney says, as I have, what will be found is rather startling, to say the least.

Cheney has long held the view that Presidents can make the rules as they go along, though he allows that Congress has "the right and the responsibility to suggest whatever they want to suggest." In Cheney's world view, Congress does not make laws, just suggestions; at least none that apply to the President.

If we follow Cheney's logic, the President can authorize wire taps of citizens, confine "enemy combatants" to indefinite detention, and allow poor Mr. Buttle, or some unfortunate Iraqi, to be tortured to death, according to his prerogative, even if Congress "suggests" otherwise.

This is a frightening amount of power to be amassed in any one man's hands. It is a thousand times more frightening when one considers that the President who has demanded this kind of latitude is the President who waged a war based on cherry-picked intelligence, failed to act on a briefing entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the United States," failed to predict a hurricane that had already been predicted by the weather service, and could not foresee an ensuing disaster that had long been envisioned by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As the New York Times editorial board says in today's paper:

We can't think of a president who has gone to the American people more often than George W. Bush has to ask them to forget about things like democracy, judicial process and the balance of powers — and just trust him. We also can't think of a president who has deserved that trust less.

Newsweek's Hirsh is correct that the issue of this Administration's incompetence is central to the debate over Presidential powers and intelligence gathering. What he fails to recognize is that any bureaucracy makes mistakes and that a system of checks and balances is necessary to protect the Mr. Buttles of the world from the consequences of human error, before they're turned over to "Information Retrieval."