Going Too Far
Thursday 29 December 2005
The bouncer at my bar is named Ty. A native of New Orleans, he speaks with the slow drawl unique to the region, and he
is huge. Not outlandishly huge, not freakishly huge, but definitely one of the larger specimens of human one is likely
to meet. He works the door at my joint, as well as at another bar down the street a ways. Ty is smart, funny as all
get-out and a marvelous spinner of tales.
Each night Ty works he regales my friends and me with stories of mayhem and bouncer-justice, of the drunken boobs
stupid enough to think they can push him around at the other establishment. My bar, one gets the sense, is too peaceful
for his tastes; he has never been forced to exercise his talents while working at my joint.
Ty and I have assiduously observed the tenets of that invisible sign which hangs over the door of every drinking
establishment in America: "Thou Shalt Not Discuss Religion Or Politics In This Place." The two reasons for this are
straightforward: I don't particularly relish the idea of discussing work when I am in my cups; also, Ty is an ardent
Bush supporter, so the first reason becomes doubly significant. If I want to get frustrated and annoyed, I can just turn
on CNN and listen to the Know-Nothings ply their wares.
A funny thing happened the other night, however - something that changed the whole dynamic of our relationship. I was
passing by Ty, and he grabbed me by the arm to pull me aside. He knows what I do for a living, and wanted to discuss
politics in defiance of the invisible sign. "What do you think of the Patriot Act?" he asked me.
"I think it's a damned troubling thing," I said after a moment. "There are aspects of it that have been on the books
for years because of the War on Drugs. There are aspects of it that are brand new to American law. Overall, I think it
is tremendously invasive and not in line with how we have done things in this country. As a Republican," I said with a
bit of the needle in my voice, "the issues of personal freedom and governmental interference should bother you."
"I ain't no Republican," he said. "I'm an Independent. I think they're all crooks."
"Fair enough," I said, "but you are a Bush supporter."
"Yep," he drawled. "So what parts of the Patriot Act don't you like?"
"Well," I said, "one scary part of it is Section 215, the thing people call the 'Sneak-and-Peek' provision. Section 215
says law enforcement can enter your house, search your stuff, bug your phone, bug your computer - and they never have to
tell you they were there. The FBI could have 215'd their way into my house and I'd never know it. Hell, they could be
there right now. All they need to do it is a warrant signed by a judge somewhere."
"That ain't right," he said after a moment's consideration. "But at least they have to talk to a judge."
"Well," I said, "have you heard about all this stuff with the National Security Agency spying on people here in
"Little bit, yeah," he said.
"You know that the NSA can spy on pretty much anyone, tap their phones, do total surveillance?" I asked, and he nodded.
"Well, back in 2002, Bush told the NSA to start spying on Americans. Lots of them. But he did this without going through
the FISA court."
"FISA court?" he asked.
"FISA stands for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was passed in 1978," I said. "After Watergate and all
that craziness, they wanted to make sure our intelligence services weren't being used by people in power to spy on
Americans. If you want to get the NSA to spy on Americans, you have to get a warrant from what's called the FISA court.
They're a few judges who hear arguments for special FISA warrants."
"Now here's one of the crazy parts with this Bush-NSA thing," I said. "To get a warrant from this FISA court, you don't
need to have probable cause. You don't need to have evidence. The FISA court has handed out more than 19,000 warrants
since it was set up, and has only denied four. And they do it quickly, because obviously if you go before the FISA court
for a warrant, you're probably pressed for time. It's the easiest court in America to get a warrant from. Bush totally
blew past them, said he didn't need warrants from the FISA court, and just had the NSA start spying away on Americans."
Ty's response to this was too profane to be printed here.
"Why the hell'd he do that?" he finally asked.
"Good question," I said. "There are two probable reasons, neither of which are very comfortable. The first reason is
that he and Cheney want to expand the power of the Executive Branch. Cheney, specifically, has always felt that the
Executive let go of too much power after Watergate and Vietnam, gave too much power to Congress and the press, and these
guys have been trying to get it back. So they decided that since we are 'at war,' they were going to do whatever they
damned well pleased."
"Seems smart," he said.
"Maybe," I said, "but that's a different debate. Ask yourself this, though. Imagine a Democrat wins the White House in
2008. These Bush guys will have left this Democrat with outrageously broad powers. His people can spy on whom they like,
because Bush did it. They don't have to get warrants, because Bush did it. They can lie to the press, because Bush did
it. They can bulldoze Congress, because Bush did it. That make you comfortable?"
"Hell no," he said.
"Right," I said. "Too much power is too much power, no matter who is in power. The separation of powers is there for a
"So what's the other reason you think he didn't get the FISA warrants?" he asked.
"That," I said, "is actually the scarier part. Like I said, FISA has given out those 19,000 warrants and has only
denied four. It's incredibly easy to get a warrant from them. The only reason they're there at all is to safeguard your
privacy and mine, to make sure some crazy maniac in the White House doesn't start spying on Americans, on personal
enemies, on you and me. The NSA can do that, so the FISA court is there as a firewall."
"OK," he said.
"So maybe," I said, "Bush didn't go to the FISA court because he knew they wouldn't give him the warrants. Maybe he
didn't go to the FISA court because he wanted to spy on enemies like Patrick Fitzgerald, like Joe Wilson, like Cindy
Sheehan, like Tom Daschle or Harry Reid, or anyone else who was messing with him. Maybe he didn't go to the FISA court
because he knew the surveillance he wanted was illegal, but he was damned well going to do it anyway."
"That ain't right," said Ty, his face reddening.
"Now take this all one step further," I said, "since you asked about the Patriot Act. Think about that Section 215 and
the sneak-and-peek stuff. I told you they need to see a judge first to come into your home, to search and bug your
stuff. But this whole NSA deal shows that Bush and these guys don't give a hoot in hell for judges, warrants or the
process of law. They're going to do what they want to do, warrant or not. We've got a situation now where Bush and his
people could not only be ordering the surveillance of Americans, but could also be authorizing home invasions, and all
without any kind of warrants and oversight. What does that sound like to you?"
"Fascism," he said without hesitating.
"This is the reason," I said with a smile, "why I don't talk politics at the bar. I have a way of going on and on until
the paint peels. But let me ask you one last question."
"Shoot," he said.
"As a Bush supporter," I said, "how far are you willing to go to support the guy? How much individual liberty, how many
laws, are you willing to give up to Bush before we lose the country? How far is too far?"
Ty didn't have anything to say at first. "This," he finally muttered, "is too damned far."
At that moment, a crowd of people came into the bar, and Ty had to check their IDs. I went back to my beer.
Drip, drip, drip.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know
and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence