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 how hard it is to predict who will be embarrassed by 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. That should not have come as much of a surprise since George Bush & Co. have had few compunctions about spying on U.S. citizens. There was little reason to think the administration would not have had fewer compunctions about spying on Iraqi citizens. After all, Iraqis lack the veneer of protection of 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 and continues in today’s headlines.
But let’s rewind. On December 16, 2005, we learned from the New York Times that George Bush had signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing 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 eight-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 the U.S. House Appropriations Committee had approved an amendment denying money for the “National Applications Office.” According reports that office is a Bush administration program expanding the use of Pentagon spy satellites for domestic uses. Rep. Jane Harmon, a California Democrat, chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on intelligence was alarmed and told Newsweek: “We have to make sure this is not a back door for spying on Americans.” She and her colleagues worried that the “Applications Office” might impinge on civil liberties, A reasonable worry since, as with all things in the Bush administration, things that look and quack like ducks often are described by the administration as swans.
In light of the foregoing it is hard to say why the Iraqis are so upset by Mr. Woodward’s book.
According to Woodward, 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 allegations were true, it would be evidence of a lack of trust. Interestingly, that is the sort of thing that a typical American citizen said when learning that he or she was susceptible to unlawful spying. It’s also what so concerned Rep. Harmon. Mr. al-Dabbagh went on to state that the administration’s activity “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 supposedly not authorized reveal, an anonymous “top aide to al-Maliki” told USAToday that “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.
Sadly, 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.