Reflections on the 9/11 attacks are important and moving. But most overlook the enduring legacy of the attacks, in the form of the vastly greater damage done to American principles over the past decade. Whether in the context of surveillance, torture, or the congressional cowardice that has enabled them, our leaders have sullied the legacy of an America that once inspired the world.
Earlier this summer, when facing a crucial accountability moment for an agency that continues to abuse the rights of millions of Americans, members of Congress asked no tough questions, avoided controversy, and submitted to a White House proposal to entrench the FBI leadership—at the same time as they fought to the knuckles over issues that Congress created in the first place by spending the country into a fiscal black hole and absurdly cutting taxes in the midst of multiple wars.
Most astounding in all this is Congress’s apparent abandonment of its own institutional interests. Even in the face of documented lies by the FBI’s leadership to congressional committees and repeated proof that Congress, the press, and the public are hearing only tiny slices of the whole truth, Congress has failed to use its many tools to seek transparency and investigate executive abuses.
There was a time that America’s leaders took seriously their oaths to defend the Constitution by conducting aggressive oversight of executive agencies. A generation ago, for instance, the Church and Pike Committees investigated many of the same practices that have recurred in the past decade. The failure of their successors in Congress threatens the future of democracy in America and reflects a disturbing pattern of congressional submission to executive power.
Congress began lining up to defend executive abuses in the face of public criticism soon after the 9/11 attacks. Special registration requirements, the PATRIOT Act’s draconian surveillance powers, unprecedented authorities to arbitrarily—and indefinitely—detain individuals on the mere basis of accusation, and major revisions to the FBI Guidelines all generated little debate in Congress.
And while we might find comfort in the hope that a counter-movement would emerge, that hope is misplaced. Despite running on a platform announcing that the “choice between liberty and security” was “false,” the Obama administration has continued—and even expanded—the Bush administration’s surveillance and secrecy. And by reversing course on accountability for torture, the Obama administration affirmed that criminals with enough political connections would receive judges’ robes rather than prison terms.
Even when ordered by multiple courts to release evidence of detainee abuse, the White House refused. In fall 2009, in the midst of a year-long battle to extend healthcare to 42 million underinsured Americans, Congress took less than a week to change the law at the Obama administration’s request so that evidence of the Bush administration’s abuses would remain hidden from the public. This, after abandoning Obama’s original nominee to lead the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department because she favored applying the law equally to all accused criminals, regardless of their political position.
Leave aside that hiding evidence of detainee abuse places our soldiers at risk abroad by driving the recruitment efforts of violent extremists and effectively inviting our enemies to treat our troops in the same inhumane way. Ignore the 2.3 million Americans rotting behind bars—25 percent of the world’s prisoners, in the nation that claims to lead the free world—while politically connected criminals enjoy power, prestige, and even lifetime judicial office. Forget about the sacrifices of the soldiers who gave their lives in WWII to usher in a lost era of peace, or how human rights precedents that our nation established in Nuremberg have been wrecked by our unwillingness to pursue uncomfortable truths.
Think instead about how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came to be: through controversy stoked by grassroots activists who broke into an FBI office and elite critics who used their findings to spark a two-year congressional investigation documenting heinous abuses by FBI and CIA officials. The FOIA stood for 40 years, but when courts interpreted it to require the revelation of Pentagon crimes, Congress quickly joined President Obama to change the law. “Move along. Nothing to see here…”
Think about why the CIA destroyed videotapes documenting torture. And then remember the debate in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s elimination over whether to revive torture, even though the Defense Department said it was unhelpful and claimed to have ended the practice.
The American people voted in 2008 for change, including restoring constitutional protections against unchecked secret dragnet surveillance and accountability for human rights abuses. The abject failure of our government to reflect that mandate reflects how perverted our republic has grown. For a project that took two and a half centuries to build, the past decade has been catastrophic for democracy in America. When future generations look back on our failures, the attacks of a decade ago will be the least of their concerns.
Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.
To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.