Monday, December 19, 2005

EXCLUSIVE: Bush Dead Wrong On NSA Surveillance

President Claims He Has Authority To Order Wiretaps Without Court Approval -- But a Unanimous Nixon-Era Supreme Court Ruling Says Otherwise

By Skeeter Sanders
(Copyright 2005, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.)

George W. Bush, in one of the most daring acts of imperial hubris ever committed by a sitting president, brushed aside bipartisan criticism in Congress Monday and insisted that he was acting within his constitutional authority when he approved electronic spying on suspected terrorists on U.S. soil without court orders -- an authority that the nation's highest court unanimously declared more than 30 years ago does not exist.

Asserting that it was "a necessary part of my job to protect" Americans from attack, the president vowed that he would continue the program "for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill American citizens," and added it included safeguards to protect civil liberties.

In his opening remarks at a year-end White House news conference, Bush said the warrantless spying, conducted by the National Security Agency, was an essential element in the war on terror and he blasted The New York Times for making the existence of the program public.

"It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy," he said.

The Times revealed the existence of the eavesdropping last Friday, setting off a firestorm of bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill and a promise of an investigation and public hearings by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

If anybody has committed a shameful act, it is the president himself. His claim that he has the authority to authorize wiretaps without a court order is as phony as a three-dollar bill -- and is blatantly unconstitutional.

The president spoke not long after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Congress had given Bush authority to spy on suspected terrorists in this country in legislation passed after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But several members of Congress of both parties strenuously denied that.

Gonzales ought to be fired for not properly doing his legal homework. As attorney general, he should have known that it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for the federal government to authorize national security surveillance on American citizens without the approval of a court of law.

Nixon Tried It -- And Lost

So ruled the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1972 case that overturned the convictions of three defendants who were charged by the Nixon administration with conspiring to destroy -- and one of them with actually destroying -- government property.

Ironically, the decision was handed down just two days after the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972 -- which led to the scandal that eventually toppled Richard Nixon's presidency.

With then-Associate Justice William Rhenquist not participating in the case, United Stastes v. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, et al., the justices ruled 8-0 that the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures required prior judicial approval for national security wiretaps.

The 1972 case arose from a criminal proceeding in the Detroit-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, in which the Justice Department charged three defendants with conspiracy to destroy government property.

One of the defendants, identified in court papers only by his surname, Plamondon, was also charged with the dynamite bombing of an office of the CIA in Ann Arbor, Mich.

During pre-trial proceedings, the defendants' attorneys moved to compel the government to disclose certain electronic surveillance information and to conduct a hearing "to determine whether this information 'tainted' the evidence" on which the charges against the defendants were based.

Justice Department Admitted It Eavesdropped Without Warrants

In response, the Justice Department filed an affidavit by then-Attorney General John Mitchell acknowledging that the department's agents had overheard conversations in which defendant Plamondon had participated.

The affidavit also said that Mitchell approved the wiretaps "to gather intelligence information deemed necessary to protect the nation from attempts of domestic organizations to attack and subvert the existing structure of government."

The Justice Department argued that the surveillance was lawful, even though it was conducted without prior judicial approval, "as a reasonable exercise of [then-President Nixon's] power, exercised through [Mitchell], to protect the national security."

The district court ruled that the warrantless surveillance violated the Fourth Amendment and ordered the government "to make full disclosure to Plamondon of his overheard conversations."

The government appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to set aside the district court's ruling. The appeals court ruled that the surveillance was indeed unlawful and upheld the lower court's decision. The government promptly appealed to the Supreme Court.

Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the relevant statute at issue in the case, authorizes the use of electronic surveillance for certain classes of crimes, but requires a judicial order for such surveillance to be valid.

The Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Safe Streets Act that the Justice Department argued gave the president the constitutional authority to unilaterally "take such measures as he deems necessary to protect the nation against an actual or potential attack or other hostile acts of a foreign power, to obtain intelligence information deemed essential to the security of the United States, or to protect national security information against foreign intelligence activities..."

The justices even cited another provision in the statute itself, in which "where the Act authorizes surveillance, the procedure to be followed...therefore requires application to a judge of competent jurisdiction for a prior order of approval and states in detail the information required in such application."

Powell: Fourth Amendment Aimed to Bar 'Unrestrained Abuses'

Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the court, declared that "Civil liberties, as guaranteed by the Constitution, imply the existence of an organized society maintaining public order without which liberty itself would be lost in the excesses of unrestrained abuses...

"These Fourth Amendment freedoms cannot properly be guaranteed if domestic security surveillances may be conducted solely within the discretion of the Executive Branch," Powell continued. "The Fourth Amendment does not contemplate the executive officers of government as neutral and disinterested magistrates. Their duty and responsibility are to enforce the laws, to investigate and to prosecute.

"But those charged with this investigative and prosecutorial duty should not be the sole judges of when to utilize constitutionally sensitive means in pursuing their tasks," Powell wrote."The historical judgement, which the Fourth Amendment accepts, is that unreviewed executive discretion may yield too readily to pressure to obtain incriminating evidence and overlook potential invasions of privacy and protected speech."

An Abuse of Presidential Power

That the president of the United States has the responsibility to defend the nation against threats of attack is beyond dispute. But for Bush to assert that he has the authority to authorize wiretaps and other electronic surveillance on people -- citizens and foreigners alike -- on U.S. soil without prior approval of a court of law is not only unconstitutional, but is also an outrageous breach of his oath of office to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

It is even more outrageous that this president would make such a bold assertion in spite of a clear and unanimous Supreme Court ruling to the contrary.

What George W. Bush has done is a clear and unequivocal abuse of presidential power -- the worst abuse of executive authority since Nixon -- for which Bush must be held accountable.


Volume I, Number 3
Copyright 2005, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Pagan Roots of Christmas

The Holiday the World Celebrates On the 25th of December Is Centuries Older Than Christianity Itself

By Skeeter Sanders

Ah, December. 'Tis the season when most of us are thinking about opening gifts under brightly-lit trees. Of kissing someone special under the mistletoe. Of eating, drinking and making merry. And, above all, of hoping for peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

But in 2005, on what ought to be the most festive time of the year, "goodwill to all" appears to be in short supply in America. Instead, the political, social and religious divides that have been roiling Americans for the past several years appear to be refusing to take their usual vacation this holiday season.

Indeed, the bitter bickering has turned its attention toward the holiday season itself, as a long-simmering debate in this country over the Christian symbolism of this time of the year -- or the lack thereof -- has reached a fever pitch.

What's In a Name?

Republican members of the House of Representatives, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, were in a tizzy over the congressional tree that was lighted on the Capitol grounds the night after Thanksgiving being called the "Capitol Holiday Tree" -- as it has been for the past couple of years -- instead of the "Capitol Christmas Tree."

After a hue and cry from conservatives, the House Republican leadership pushed through a resolution to henceforth officially call it the "Capitol Christmas Tree."

This tempest in a teapot under the Capitol dome would have been dismissed as just another typical venting of partisan Washington hot air, were it not for a certain conservative Christian TV evangelist -- and a certain conservative-leaning 24-hour cable TV news network.

The debate over what to call this season became no laughing matter last month when a group of lawyers backed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell launched a legal assault against what Falwell and other evangelical and fundamentalist Christians say is "the de-Christianization of Christmas." And the Fox News Channel has been inveighing against an alleged "War on Christmas" by secularists.

Falwell's Liberty Counsel has launched what it calls its "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," the purpose of which, according to its Web site, is to "first educate [the public] that Christmas is constitutional, but to litigate when governments censor Christmas and blatantly violate the Constitution."

Falwell's legal eagles already have filed suit in a Florida court against two suburbs of Jacksonville, demanding that a Nativity Creche be included in a holiday display located in a park jointly owned and operated by the two municipalities. They also threatened to take the City of Boston to a Massachusetts court over calling its municipal trees located on the grounds of City Hall and on the city-owned Boston Common "Holiday" trees instead of "Christmas" trees.

Falwell and other Christian conservatives are also hopping mad about the use of the greeting "Happy Holidays" -- and even the long-traditional "Season's Greetings" -- instead of "Merry Christmas" on public buildings and are going on the warpath to put a stop to it.

'War on Christmas?' Bah, Humbug!

But the Hunter S. Thompson Memorial Gonzo Award for overreactive fear and loathing belongs, hands down, to the right-wing Fox News and its No. 1 talk-show host, the always-acerbic bully-boy, Bill O'Reilly. The network went bonkers with a series of reports called -- I kid you not -- Christmas Under Siege, a clearly transparent attempt at whipping up its conservative viewer base with coverage of an alleged "War on Christmas" by what O'Reilly calls "secular progressives."

On the November 18 edition of The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly told his viewers of a "secular progressive agenda ... to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square." As O'Reilly fulminated, I kept turning my eyes toward my kitchen calendar. It clearly read, "November 2005," but it might as well could have read, "November 1953." I felt as if I had plunged through a time warp back over 50 years and was watching one of Sen. Joe McCarthy's tirades against "a vast Communist infiltration of our government and society."

Watching Fox's coverage of this so-called "War on Christmas" also evoked memories from another November -- 1979 -- of The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage, the ABC News series of late-night special reports of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran (which ultimately evolved into Nightline).

But unlike Ted Koppel's reports on that crisis, what Fox and O'Reilly were presenting was, as Ebenezer Scrooge might say, a load of pure, unadulterated humbug. Never in my life have I seen or heard such a crescendo of ecclesiastical arrogance by a bunch of right-wing crybabies who have the audacity to call themselves "Christians," for they're acting anything but Christ-like.

It's clear to me that Falwell, O'Reilly, et. al. are engaging in conduct more befitting of the Pharisees -- who hounded and harassed Jesus at almost every turn during the three years of his public ministry -- than of Christians who genuinely live their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Bethlehem-born carpenter from Nazareth.

Falwell, O'Reilly and a host of other latter-day Pharisees think they own this late-December holiday lock, stock and barrel. They don't. They never have and they never will, for Christmas is not for Christians only. It never has been and it never will be. And for a very good reason.

The Historical Truth About Christmas

Falwell, O'Reilly and the other latter-day Pharisees are in stubborn, bullheaded denial of a fact of history that won't go away: The holiday the world celebrates on the 25th of December is centuries older than Christianity itself.

The historical truth is that Christmas is the Christian adaptation of the many ancient Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. With the notable exception of the Nativity Creche, nearly all of the symbols and decorations that we associate today with Christmas -- the tree, the wreath, the holly and the ivy, the lights, the mistletoe, the eggnog, the yule log, the caroling and even Santa Claus -- are of Pagan origin.

Many Americans, in fact, often refer to Christmas as "the Yuletide." And no wonder: Yule is the winter solstice. Most modern Pagans still celebrate Yule. Even most Christians use "Christmas" and "Yule" interchangeably to describe the season without even thinking about its Pagan origins.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this writer is obligated to state for the record that I am a Pagan; more specifically, a Wiccan. On Yule this year -- Wednesday, December 21 -- this former Roman Catholic will mark the 20th anniversary of my conversion to Wicca, the largest and best-known "denomination" of modern Paganism.)

Yule celebrates the beginning of the sun's light and warmth returning to the northern hemisphere after reaching its southernmost point on the Earth at the Tropic of Capricorn on the winter solstice.

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

If you really want to be historically accurate, then the Christmas tree should rightly be called the Yule tree, for it dates back nearly 5,000 years to the Celtic Druids. They revered evergreens as manifestations of deity because they did not "die" from year to year, but stayed green and alive when other plants appeared dead and bare. The trees represented everlasting life and hope for the return of spring.

Best known today for their celebrations of the summer solstice in June at Stonehenge, the Druids decorated their trees for the winter solstice in December with symbols of prosperity: a fruitful harvest, coins for wealth and various charms such as those for love or fertility. Scandinavian Pagans became the first to bring their decorated trees indoors, as this provided a warm and welcoming environment for the native fairy folk to join in the festivities.

The Saxons, a Pagan tribe from what is now Germany, were the first to place lights on the their trees in the form of candles (an extremely dangerous fire hazard by today's standards, I know). For centuries, the ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreens at the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia -- which also marked the Roman New Year -- and exchanged evergreen branches with friends as a sign of good luck.

Christians' use of the tree symbol for the December holidays did not begin until the 16th century, when devout Catholics in present-day Italy brought decorated trees into their homes. The German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, is credited with starting the tradition in England in 1841 when he brought the first Christmas tree into Windsor Castle.

The Eight Pagan Holidays

Nature's cycles of winter, spring, summer and fall (and everything else in between) are so much a part of human life and society on Earth that to acknowledge, celebrate and even sanctify those cycles is a primal need we simply cannot ignore. Just ask any ski-resort operator in winter or swimming-pool operator in summer -- or any farmer, for that matter.

Yet those who follow the world's three great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- have long been reluctant to do so and instead instituted their own rituals, holy days and festivals. The fact that many of the major Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays -- and even some civic and national holidays -- often occur in tandem with the eight major Pagan holidays during the course of the year is no accident.

In addition to the winter solstice celebration of Yule on December 20-22 (depending on the actual date of the solstice itself from one year to the next), the other seven Pagan holidays are: Imbolg or Candlemas (Groundhog Day, February 2) -- also known among Catholics as St. Brigid's Day; Eostre or Ostara (Spring Equinox, March 20-22); Beltaine (May Day, May 1); Litha (Summer Solstice, June 20-22); Lammas or Lughnasadh (Midsummer's Day, August 1); Mabon (Fall Equinox, September 20-22) and Samhain, the Wiccan New Year (Halloween, October 31).

This is why Easter (whose name in English is a derivative of Eostre) always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. And why Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, almost always falls near the fall equinox.

Jews transformed the three ancient harvest festivals of the Canaanites into the three festivals of Creation (Tabernacles), Revelation (Pentecost), and Redemption (Passover). Likewise, Christians and Muslims transformed their ancient, Nature-based festivals into celebrations of the singular events in, respectively, the life of Jesus and the career of the Prophet Mohammed.

(By the way, Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, will begin at sundown on Christmas Day this year -- the first time Hanukkah and Christmas will have coincided since 1978).

How an Ancient Roman Holiday Became Christmas

After Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E., the early Christian church -- now the Vatican -- used the transformation of the ancient holidays and festivals as a tool to convert Pagans to Christianity throughout the empire and beyond.

Yet the church barred Christians from holding any kind of celebration to honor the birth of Jesus, primarily because the actual date of his birth was unknown -- and remains unknown to this day, although there is some astronomical and archaeological evidence suggesting that Jesus was actually born in the spring.

The church's ban was lifted in 350 C.E., when Pope Julius I proclaimed a feast day to celebrate Jesus' birth -- and deliberately chose December 25 as the date to hold "Christ's Mass" to absorb and Christianize not only Yule, but also Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, gift-giving and role-reversal between men and women and between slaves and their masters. It was also marked by the unabashed enjoyment of sensual and erotic pleasures, which many conservative Christians today strongly condemn as wanton debauchery, but still survives in our time (primarily around New Year's Eve).

And because Saturnalia also marked the Roman New Year under the Julian calendar, the changeover to the present-day Gregorian calendar in 1582 resulted in the one-week interval between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Upper-class Romans also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the sun god, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For them, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year -- especially since the daylight from the sun began to lengthen on the 25th, following the winter solstice.

Christianity vs. Paganism

The current debate in the United States over "Christmas" versus "Holiday" trees, decorations and greetings is part of a much deeper clash of cultures that has gone on for centuries: Christianity vs. Paganism. Christianity is monotheistic and linear; Paganism is pantheistic and circular.

Pagans celebrate the eternal natural cycle of being. Christians venerate the linear concept of progress, from creation to ultimate redemption.

Pagans live in the realm of the eternal recurrence. Pagan rites maintain harmonious relationships among the gods; thus, these rituals guarantee the continuity of Nature's cycles, which Nature-based human societies depend on for their sustenance.

Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) worship the God who created all natural things and stands above them. To them, when God intervenes in the world, it is not to create a disruption of natural events, but rather to generate some wonderful new direction in human affairs.

It is at the winter solstice -- more so than at any other time of the year -- that people of Judeo/Christian/Muslim faith feel most acutely the tension between the origins of their religion in Pagan Nature worship on the one hand and the evolution of their faith into belief in a single God and a linear remembrance of historical events and teachings on the other.

America's Growing Religious Diversity

And for many conservative Christians in particular, that tension could only have grown sharper in recent years as the number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian has been growing exponentially since 1990, according to data compiled by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Out of a total U.S. adult population of 207.9 million people in 2001 -- the latest ARIS data available -- 159.5 million, or roughly 75 percent, identified themselves as Christian (inclusive of all of its denominations). By comparison, out of a total U.S. adult population of 175.4 million in 1990, 151.4 million, or roughly 85 percent, identified themselves as Christian.

The number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian grew from 20.1 million (15 percent) in 1990 to 37.1 million (25 percent) in 2001, according to the ARIS data, with particularly sharp increases recorded in the number of adherents to Islam and Buddhism.

America's Muslim population has more than doubled, from 527,000 in 1990 to 1.1 million in 2001. The nation's Buddhist community grew even faster, according to ARIS, from 401,000 in 1990 to 1.08 million in 2001.

(Buddhists have their own major holiday in December: Bodhi Day, which celebrates the story of how the philosopher Siddartha Gautama of India became the Buddha by sitting under a bodhi tree and vowing to remain there until he achieved total enlightenment. The holiday this year was celebrated on December 8.)

While there was no census of American Pagans in 1990, the ARIS survey did report at least 307,000 Americans identifying themselves as such in 2001, with 134,000 professing to be Wiccans, 33,000 as Druids and 140,000 as eclectic "neo-Pagans" of a wide spectrum of traditions.

Interestingly, the ARIS survey counted only 53,000 Americans in 2001 as identifying themselves as "secular" and even fewer -- 43,000 -- calling themselves "humanists." There was no accounting of either group in 1990.

The truth is, America in the closing days of 2005 is more religiously and spiritually diverse now than it's ever been before in its nearly 230-year history. That diversity is certain to grow in the future, further reducing American Christians' majority -- and Falwell, O'Reilly and other Christian conservatives are going to have to deal with it, whether they like it or not.

Is It a Pagan Christmas -- or a Christian Yule?

If they wanted to, today's Pagans could reclaim the Christmas tree (indeed, all the decorative trappings of Christmas, save for the Nativity Creche) as being rightfully theirs, since Pagans created them in the first place. But modern Pagans are a practical lot, with most viewing Christmas simply as the Christian world celebrating Yule in their own way -- albeit, four or five days after the actual winter solstice -- and thus see no conflict in celebrating the secular aspects of Christmas themselves.

December isn't called the holiday season for nothing. There's also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day (in Canada) and scores of other holidays and festivals around the world this month -- all of which culminate in the ringing in of the new year at midnight on December 31.

Thanks to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar as the universal calendar used worldwide and the global system of 24 time zones, New Year's Day is our only truly global holiday -- which we all got to watch unfold on our TV screens in all its joyful glory as we greeted the new millennium (albeit, a year too soon).

So whichever way you celebrate the holidays, may yours be filled with joy, peace and love.

Blessed Be! And Happy Holidays.

Author's Footnote: The initials "C.E." used in this article refers to "Common Era," which I am using here in place of "A.D." ("Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord") to reflect dates under the now-universally-used Gregorian calendar.


Volume I, Number 2
Copyright 2005, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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