Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Collins and the Rule of Law

Few noticed this past week when Sen. Susan Collins signed onto an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would explicitly ban the indefinite detention of American citizens and permanent US residents.

It's a laudable provision, albeit one that the Constitution (and the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld) should have rendered superfluous. That such an amendment is now being offered speaks volumes about both the country's illiberal drift in the period after September 11, 2001 and the resurgence of respect for due process and other legal norms in recent years.

The decision of Collins, a reputed moderate and pragmatist, to join a group looking to bolster basic legal protection might seem unsurprising. But in the context of her actual record over the last fourteen years, it's actually a flabbergasting development.

That's because the senior senator was very much part of the team that helped undermine those legal protections in the first place: Remaining silent during the Bush years as that administration made torture, domestic spying and yes, indefinite detention, cornerstones of its "security" policy--before then voting to forgive these crimes--Collins was every bit the enabler of the nation's drift toward a Bill of Rights-shredding 'emergency law' framework.

Specifically, she played a key role in exempting intelligence officers from a torture ban; voted to allow indefinite detention (while shielding torturers from legal consequences); and backed legal immunity for telecoms that broke the law by helping the government spy on their customers.

And then in 2010 she jumped the shark, actively seeking out the spotlight to spread fear about the dangers of adhering to Western legal norms. Along the way she suggested falsely that the Constitution doesn't apply to non-citizens; criticized the Obama administration for not suspending habeas corpus for terrorism suspects; argued that the Cheney approach had not gone far enough in curtailing civil liberties; and embraced the indefinite, years-long, extralegal detention of Jose Padilla--an American citizen held without charges after being seized on American soil.

In short, Collins's journey from foil for those looking to uphold 800-year-old legal precepts to defender of those precepts raises serious questions.

Among them: How does a mature adult--let alone a seasoned pol--lurch back and forth between respect for the rule of law and utter contempt for it? And what does it say about the American media and the rest of us that such a shift garners so little public attention?

The second question is probably the more significant. After all, Collins's metamorphosis, whatever drove it, tells us little we didn't already know about the senator's malleability. But the silence with which her ideological contortions have been greeted underscores an unfortunate truth about the inaccountability of beltway elites who strayed from core American values in the post-9/11 period: Enablers of the Bush administration's worst abuses (including Collins) have paid virtually no price for their irresponsibility.

Rather, the officials, pols and pundits who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush and Cheney to advance heinous policies have been free to reframe their views and massage their records with more or less total impunity. Rarely do these people--many of whom continue to occupy positions of power and influence--face so much as a polite question about their previous support for the programs they are now inclined to distance themselves from.

That's a real problem in a democratic republic that depends on elected officials being accountable to an informed citizenry.

It suggests that we've learned little as a country from our decade-long dalliance with the dark side and that we're not prepared to take even simple, obvious steps to avoid winding up in exactly the same place again.