Comment With January approaching, bringing foul weather and a Democratic majority to Capitol Hill, the President has abandoned one of his cute little dodges that had shut down Congressional inquiries into the NSA's mass wiretap scandal.
The Department of Justice (DoJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) will now conduct a review of the Department's involvement in the affair, as Congress had previously requested. In the past, the White House had thought it clever to deny the inspectors the security clearance necessary to perform this duty, while a Republican majority on the Hill obediently declined to insist.
But the balance of power in Washington is about to shift, and Bush can read the handwriting on the wall as well as anyone. There's no point trying to obstruct the inevitable. Thus the inspectors have finally been granted clearance to do their jobs.
DoJ investigators will examine how the data scooped up by the NSA is handled and applied when US citizens are affected. No doubt the government's practices will be measured against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), although the Bush administration has claimed repeatedly that it answers to a higher authority.
This apparently proactive cooperation should strike Washington watchers as preemptive. If the Bushies are willing to concede the issue without a fight, it's most likely because they doubt there's much red meat to be had from it. That is, if they want this investigated first, it's because they want other things investigated last.
The media has made a great fuss about this program, so it should surprise no one if the combination of a whole lot of smoke and a small fire suits the administration quite well. If it keeps Congress and the press occupied, and only hurts the administration moderately, it's a Godsend.
There are so many dark avenues for Congress to illuminate: arbitrary classification of "enemy combatants", indefinite detentions, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, torture, military kangaroo courts, prisoner abuse, war crimes, phony intelligence used knowingly to justify a needless conflict. Along these avenues lurk unspeakable things involving blood and death, endless loneliness, profound loss, and enduring pain.
The NSA spy scandal offers the administration many virtues as a national hobbyhorse. For one, it's painless and "clean"; no one has been bloodied, maimed, or killed by it. It doesn't melt anyone's skin like the incendiary weapons used in Fallujah; it doesn't blow up one's house and leave half of one's family dead. It doesn't cause the premature burial of young Americans killed in Iraq, whose families need them far more than their country ever did. No one in Iraq is fighting for America, not even the Americans. The USA never needed that war; George W Bush alone needed it, and for a contemptible reason: he thought it would make him Great.
Another virtue of the spy fiasco is its relevance: it (presumably) affects millions of Americans, which the carnage in Iraq and the associated counterterrorist brutality now hidden from us cannot. It's something that the public can appreciate in a personal way. This guarantees it tremendously solid legs in the press. The atrocities in Fallujah will never be as relevant as the thought of Uncle Sam surfing pr0n over your shoulder, or listening to you break up with your boyfriend over the phone.
Indeed, the NSA spy program could be just the media obsession the administration is looking for, now that the balance of power has shifted. ®