The Bush administration will continue to lose the battle to nurture democracy abroad as long as it wages war against democracy at home.
Democrats in the Senate caved on Tuesday for fear that they might be designated soft on terrorism, approving a bill that gives the federal government broad powers to spy on Americans with little judicial oversight. It was a defeat for Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has sought to hold the federal government accountable to the demands of the Constitution.
One part of the bill provides immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government's program of illegal spying. Defenders of the companies said that to deny them immunity would be to discourage future cooperation. Opponents of immunity said granting immunity would encourage future law-breaking and did not hold the companies accountable.
It is important that telecommunications companies know they are accountable to the law, but the Senate effectively decided that the laws need not apply to them.
The erosion of democracy at home proceeds as the Bush administration prosecutes a war abroad that is said to be about the advance of democracy. Only this week the Senate passed a bill prohibiting the use of waterboarding and other torture methods, but President Bush has threatened to veto it. Thus, he sends the message that while we promote the rule of law for others, we reserve the right to behave lawlessly ourselves.
Unaccountably, Sen. John McCain, who has voted in the past to prohibit torture, opposed the latest bill.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has squandered an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that the United States understands the rule of law to be fundamental in a democracy. The military has announced that six prisoners at Guantanamo will be tried by a military commission for participation in the plot of Sept. 11 and may be put to death.
The six include nefarious individuals such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who has boasted of masterminding the Sept. 11 plot, and they deserve the full brunt of what the law may bring down on them. But to subject them to proceedings short of a fair trial is to put on display to the world the contempt that the Bush administration holds for the rule of law.
Their trial by military commission is likely to be as much about the heinous deeds the defendants are alleged to have committed as about the acts of torture and other coercion to which that have been subjected. The rules of evidence governing the commission do not match the rules of evidence in a civilian court. And to provoke the revulsion of the rest of the world by seeking the death penalty in these cases is once again to spurn what the Declaration of Independence called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."
How much more inspiring to the dissidents and other democratic activists in tyrannies around the world if the United States were able to conduct its criminal trials and carry out its law enforcement within the bounds of the law. Leahy and Sen. Bernard Sanders voted to hold phone companies to the law, and they were defeated. They sought to keep the nation's spy powers within the bounds of the Constitution, but the Senate buckled.