Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

What’s Legal at the New York Times?

The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal? The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader?)

If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.

At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.

And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….

But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….

“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”

To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”

As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening – nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts – but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.

McCain says GOP is Corrupt

Last night in the Republican presidential debate, Sen. John McCain said, in response to Mitt Romney’s criticism of McCain-Feingold:  ”Is there anyone who believes there’s not enough money washing around money in politics, which has corrupted our own party?

His “we have enough money in politics” argument has become a standard defense of McCain-Feingold. The idea here is that while McCain-Feingold may have restricted spending on politics, there is still “enough” money in politics. But McCain characteristically misses the point. In a free society, the question is not whether citizens collectively produce “enough” spending on politics. It is rather whether they are free to spend on politics as they wish. McCain-Feingold abridged political liberties even if Sen. McCain believes we have “enough” political speech left over. 

McCain’s charge that the GOP is corrupt also recalls the debates surrounding McCain-Feingold. The Senator then charged the entire Senate with corruption, but when Sen. McConnell challenged him to name a single corrupt individual, he could not. Now McCain thinks the GOP itself was corrupted by money in politics. That seems like a strange way to appeal for the votes of active Republicans. But Sen. McCain should be required to say exactly how campaign finance corrupted the entire Republican party.  

REAL ID Is a Dead Letter

Ten states have now passed legislation rejecting the REAL ID Act, the national ID law Congress passed without a hearing in May 2005.

Massachusetts may be next. According to the Boston Globe, the registrar of motor vehicles in that state issued scathing comments to the DHS on the regulations implementing the law. Apparently, there were 12,000 comments in total – quite a few of them negative, I’ll wager.

I have testified on REAL ID twice in the U.S. Senate, both times calling the law a “dead letter” – once in the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and once in the Judiciary Committee.

Gonzales’s Gambit

Still more reasons why Gonzales needs to go.

When Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller are threatening to resign because then-White House Counsel Gonzales is seeking surveillance powers that go “too far” …  you start to get a sense as to Gonzales’s views on state power.  

Cato will be hosting a debate on the NSA surveillance program and more next week.  For additional background, read this.

Lobbying Reform Reformed

The Politico offers an article about House Democrats and their effort to legislate about lobbying. The Senate passed a lobbying bill in January.

The road to the Senate bill included a struggle over the disclosure of funding for grassroots lobbying. Groups like the National Rifle Association or the National Right to Life Committee sometimes pay firms to communicate with citizens and urge them to contact their members of Congress on issues of concern to the group. The usual “reform groups” wanted the Senate to force disclosure of the sums spent mobilizing public opinion in this way. The Senate left disclosure out of their bill.

The effort to mandate disclosure resumed when the House took up lobbying reform. We held a forum on the topic that can be seen here. It now appears that the mandated disclosure will not appear in House version of the bill though it may be offered as an amendment.

The grassroots lobbying disclosure effort looked a lot like normal politics. The new majorities in Congress were (on the whole) Democratic and liberal, the groups that would be forced to disclosure their political activities were (on the whole) Republican and conservative. The new powers-that-be were apparently looking at ways to harass and perhaps discourage speech they did not like. As I said, normal politics.

Why has mandated disclosure apparently failed? A leader of one of the targeted groups told me that she hoped Speaker Pelosi would include the mandate in the lobbying reform bill. This leader believed the Speaker and her party would end up with a political black eye from the fight. Perhaps Speaker Pelosi agreed in the end.

For now, at least.

The White House Privacy Board Hasn’t Gotten Everything Right

In a recent post, I lauded the White House Privacy Board for its use of an analytical framework similar to the one I helped produce for the DHS Privacy Committee. It wasn’t a total endorsement, and I covered my … tracks by saying, “This doesn’t mean the White House Privacy Board has gotten everything right, of course. I have no doubt that they could have done better.”

Someone else shares that view, someone who should know. Lanny Davis, the lone Democrat on the Board, has resigned. Newsweek reports that he complains of “substantial” edits of the board’s report in his resignation letter.

Davis charged that the White House sought to remove an extensive discussion of recent findings by the Justice Department’s inspector general of FBI abuses in the uses of so-called “national security letters” to obtain personal data on U.S. citizens without a court order. He also charged that the White House counsel’s office wanted to strike language stating that the panel planned to investigate complaints from civil liberties groups that the Justice Department had improperly used a “material witness statute” to lock up terror suspects for lengthy periods of time without charging them with any crimes.

I am not a bit surprised. Serving as I do on a similar board, I am keenly aware of the pressures to conform the group’s findings to the prevailing view at the sponsoring agency. So far, the DHS Privacy Committee has been pretty good at resisting that, but it is not fully independent by any stretch.

This all is a reminder: Privacy will never be protected by government-constituted boards or officials. It is a product of individuals having the power to control information about themselves and exercising that control consistent with their interests and values. Don’t ever think you’ve got privacy because there is a White House Privacy Board or a DHS Privacy Committee.

As If Canada Were a Separate Country

Jim Harper adequately documents (1) how the State Department is bungling my wife’s application for a new passport, which one now needs to fly to Montreal (for some reason), and (2) my appeal to the opposite sex. 

I would add only that, while David Boaz is correct that a fence between the U.S. and Mexico is not exactly Berlin Wall-esque (“The Berlin Wall was designed to keep citizens in”), this bone-headed rule that one cannot fly to Canada without a passport might be: it actually does make it more difficult for American citizens to leave.