How will US President George W. Bush's administration be remembered historically? After five years in office, and with another three years to go, some answers are already apparent. Others are emerging gradually. The latter category includes an increasing assault on civil liberties within the US that now compares to that of former president Richard Nixon's administration more than thirty years ago.
Of course, civil liberties were bound to suffer in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout US history, threats to national security, whether real or imagined, have led to clampdowns on the rights of citizens and, to a far greater extent, on the rights of immigrants and others suspected of acting in the interests of alien forces.
In the twentieth century, abuses of civil liberties were particularly severe during four periods. In the years 1917 to 1919, US participation in World War I and anarchist bombings after the war led to almost two thousand federal prosecutions, mass roundups of aliens, and summary deportations. During World War II, Japan's attack on the US was followed by the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans because of their race, including many who were born in the US.
In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the Cold War and fears that the Red Menace would sap US resolve from within led to myriad anti-subversive programs, with tens of thousands of Americans losing their livelihoods as a result. Finally, during the Nixon years, the president's paranoia about opposition to the Vietnam War and to his policies fuelled a pattern of abuses that eventually brought about his resignation in disgrace.
The Nixon administration's legacy is particularly instructive in assessing the Bush record. Though Americans tend to lump Nixon's violations of civil liberties together under the heading of "Watergate," much more was involved than the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters and the subsequent cover-up. The participants in those events included the "Plumbers," a personal secret police established by Nixon and so named because one of their tasks was to eliminate leaks of information that the White House did not want to disclose.
Another secret assault on civil liberties was Nixon's adoption of the "Huston Plan" which authorized political surveillance by burglary, electronic eavesdropping and the use of the military to spy on civilians. Nixon used these methods against political opponents, journalists and government employees suspected of disloyalty to the president.
As far as we know, Bush has not gone that far. Nevertheless, electronic eavesdropping without court authorization, of the sort Bush ordered starting in 2002, played a particularly important part in Nixon's downfall. One of the three counts against Nixon in the vote to impeach Nixon by the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee was based on such eavesdropping.
In fact, Bush pursued his policy despite a 1978 law -- adopted in response to the Nixon-era abuses -- that specifically requires judicial approval, and in contradiction to his public assurance that no such eavesdropping takes place without a court order. Now that his electronic surveillance program has been exposed, Bush's Justice Department has launched an investigation into how the news became public, threatening the journalists who reported the information.