The wizard behind the spy curtain

Sometimes in these United States, the curtain seems to be pulled back to reveal the wizard and all his phony manipulations. Such a thing has occurred with the bill known as the Protect America Act.

Let me say at once that I apologize to no one for taking the view that America should be protected. Of course, how it is protected is always a matter of concern given the current crew running the government.

This bill is about the government’s use of wiretaps. Many of us would concede that wiretapping is a necessary evil in the pursuit of evil-doer terrorists, but the question is what limits should be put on snooping out of regard for the people and their quaint, old-fashioned notions of privacy.

As it is, my guess is that the government in the current era is able to gather all personal information up to and including the size of Aunt Hilda’s bloomers. (Not to reveal state secrets, but women’s underwear gets larger as they age and her bloomers are now so big that yachts are stranded in ports for want of the sailcloth that went into manufacturing them.)

Such concerns, however, have not been decisive in keeping the bill from being signed into law by the president. So what is the big, veto-threatened difference between the Senate bill, which the White House likes, and the House version, which it sees as an abomination possibly predicted in the Book of Revelation? President Bush explained it well before he went off to Africa.

“In order to be able to discover . . . the enemy’s plans,” he said, “we need the cooperation of telecommunication companies. If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won’t participate; they won’t help us; they won’t help protect America. Liability protection is critical to securing the private sector’s cooperation with our intelligence efforts.”

The sound you hear is the curtain being parted to reveal the wizard. Yes, there he is.

Wait a second, that wizard is wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. That wizard is a telecommunications CEO. He and his pals belong to companies that “won’t help us; they won’t help protect America,” our president has told us — unless, of course, they are given retroactive immunity to lawsuits from Americans who feel they were illegally wiretapped. Only then apparently will these companies help to protect America, which we are invited to think is jolly decent of them.

In making this strange pitch, Bush also warned of dire consequences if the House did not immediately act before the current law expired, perhaps an event that would make 9/11 pale by comparison. Why, it was further implied, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders would be forced to wear veils and burqas unless America were made safe for telecommunications companies who wish to avoid responsibility for their past actions.

Since then, the deadline has passed and of course nothing has happened except that telecommunications CEOs are presumably sulking and Aunt Hilda’s underwear is still not safe from undercover activities because mere laws do not inhibit those who rule as kings.

In light of these curtain-parting events, the average American, if he or she is not asleep, might be moved to ask: A veto is threatened for this? Waging the war on terror will be jeopardized for this? Do we have a government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations? Well, ask a silly question, Mr. Abe Lincoln impersonator. Unfortunately, it seems you can fool all of the people all of the time if you are brazen enough.

Keith Olbermann of “MSNBC Countdown” is not asleep and recently reacted on his show as many patriots should have done in the face of such garbage — with fury. He went a bit overboard, calling the president bad names. Now Olbermann will be put down as one who hates the president. As you know, the conservative definition of hating George W. Bush starts with anyone who mildly disagrees with him.

As for me, I am routinely accused of hating the president. However, I do not hate him. I suppose I’m just too lazy too get all that hot and bothered.

That is why in the interests of fair play I have tried to see something beyond a sheepish wizard in wolfish corporate clothing who needs an incentive to protect America when humble men and women are doing the job in uniform while asking for very little and sacrificing much.

But that’s all I and Aunt Hilda can see. Not in Kansas anymore? Heck, it seems like we are not in America any more.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gaette.com.)

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