Posted on July 18, 2008 in Washington Watch

(A review of items of interest to the U.S.-Arab relationship – covering developments in Washington, political campaigns and the U.S. Media)

Two years ago, when it was revealed that the U.S. government had engaged in widespread warrantless wiretapping of phone calls, Congress expressed outrage. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) noted, “Warrantless spying threatens to undermine our democratic society, unless legislation brings it under control. In other words, the power to invade privacy must be used sparingly, guarded jealously, and shared equally between the branches of government.” Senators demanded hearings demanding to know how the wiretapping was done, how many calls had been intercepted; were the calls of U.S. citizens compromised; and did U.S. phone companies violate privacy laws by cooperating with what was seen as an unconstitutional request by the Bush Administration.

Since no answers were given to any of these questions, it was confounding to many civil libertarians when, last week, Congress passed and President Bush signed a new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The new Act not only weakens protections that kept ordinary Americans from being spied upon by their government, but also gives immunity to the telephone companies who participated in the a program that was almost certainly illegal under-then existing law.

Sadly, it appears, the outrage has subsided.

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    While on the subject of endangering civil liberties, according to the Associated Press (AP), the Department of Justice and FBI are writing new guidelines to allow massive data mining of public records to identify potential targets for terrorist investigations. Two matters of concern:
    1) this data mining will occur without the now-required evidence of criminal wrongdoing; and
    2) among the items to be used in the data mining appear to be ethnicity, country of origin or religion – along with military training and foreign travel.
    This led one spokesperson for a civil liberties organization to ask, “If I’m a Lebanese American, U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq war, and go to visit my family in Lebanon, I guess I can expect a visit from the FBI when I return home.” Apparently, the answer would be, yes.

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An interesting development is taking place on Capitol Hill around a bad piece of legislation. The Chairman and ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia (New York Democrat Gary Ackerman and Indiana Republican Mike Pence, respectively) introduced a bill which “declares” that the U.S. should stop Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon by any means necessary.


Congressman Ron Wexler (D-FL), a stalwart pro-Israel member of Congress and a supporter of Barack Obama, wrote a letter to his colleagues urging them not to support the bill, arguing that it’s purely punitive tone and ambiguous language ignored past failings of a “sticks only approach.” This letter, and a lobbying effort against the bill by pro-peace Jewish organizations, apparently got so much traction that Ackerman and Pence sent out a letter clarifying their bill and calling for support.

While the process involved here is nothing new, it is noteworthy in revealing the ongoing debate within the American Jewish community over Middle East policy which is now being reflected – for the first time – in debates in Congress.

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    Pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement of John McCain was rejected after some of his more unsavory remarks became well-known, has been on a campaign to improve his image, in the run-up to his organization’s annual conference beginning July 21. His staff has gotten YouTube to remove more than 120 unflattering videos from its website, and Hagee himself has apologized to Catholics for calling their Church “The Great Whore”/”false cult system” and to Jews for arguing that the Holocaust was God’s way of getting Jews to move to Israel (both apologies were accepted).

    Thus far, the effort has worked, as Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and a few other members of Congress still plan to attend, though there are still those urging them not to go. Also attending will be anti-Muslim activists such as Frank Gaffney, and Daniel Pipes who said he is attending to help “in the political effort to help Israel survive and prosper.”

    Ignored in all of this is the fact that Hagee is a prominent “Armageddonist” who supports Israel principally because he believes that its creation is a necessary prerequisite to hasten the “end of times.” One of the more disturbing quotes in the YouTube video Hagee’s people worked hard to remove comes from former Republican Congressional Leader Tom DeLay who, when asked whether he looks forward to “the final battle and end of days,” says, “I hope it comes tomorrow.”

    The question, of course, that should be asked is: why would any self-respecting political leader want the support of Hagee – unless they, too, want to hasten the destruction of the world.

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    Another positive move on in Congress is a letter from several members of Congress including Senator Hilary Clinton (D-NY), to President Bush asking for urgent action to help displaced Iraqis. Noting “the role our own government in prolonging the suffering of our courageous Iraqi allies,” and the actions other nations have taken, the letter urges the appointment of a “Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues” in the White House to cut through bureaucratic obstacles. Authored on World Refugee Day, the letter closes by demanding “a prompt response to ensure that more do not suffer.” It is promising that this is on the radar of influential members of Congress, not to mention overdue. Stay tuned for Presidential action, but, sadly, don’t hold your breath.

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    Last month, after the Israeli denied of exit visas to seven Gazan Fulbright scholars led to the cancellation of their scholarships, such an outcry arose that the U.S. State Department not only reinstated the scholarships, but also took unprecedented action to help process entrance visas for them. For three students whom Israel deemed too dangerous to enter its borders, U.S. Consular officials drove to Gaza with a portable fingerprinting machine that had been flow in from Washington to help expedite the U.S. visa process – demonstrating that, when pushed, the U.S. can find creative ways around Israeli intransigence. As a result of the controversy and strong remarks from Secretary of State Rice, the Israeli government has announced a change in policy to allow more Gazan students for foreign study grants to leave – and not just to the U.S. A small victory, to be sure, but an important one which may have the broader consequence of bringing some new hope to Palestinians in Gaza.

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    Finally, American public opinion of more balanced in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the behavior of the Bush Administration suggests. According to the results of a poll conducted for the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, when asked whose side the U.S. government should take in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 71% of Americans said “take neither side.”

    This result confirms our own polling which has, over the past decade, repeatedly shown that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans prefer that the U.S. government take a balanced position in the Middle East, favoring neither Israel nor Palestine.

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