During the Democratic Party primaries, I was hoping, against the odds, that Sen. Joe Biden would become the presidential nominee. More than the other candidates in both parties, he was continually focusing on such basic constitutional issues as his opposition to President Bush’s “unconstitutional expansion of presidential powers.” And Mr. Biden had introduced the National Security with Justice Act of 2007 that would have ended some of Mr Bush’s revisions of the rule of law.
That Biden bill included essential restorations of our rule of law, including international treaties we’ve signed. He would: “Prohibit CIA ‘Extraordinary Renditions’ [kidnapping suspects to be tortured in other countries close]; Close Black Sites & Extra-Judicial Prisons; Prohibit the Torture or Mistreatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody.” Mr. Biden emphasized that these abuses (to use a euphemism) of prisoners were a boon to jihadist recruiters, adding that “by redefining torture” we “have squandered the support of the world and the opportunity to lead it.” At home, Mr. Biden added, Mr. Bush’s disregard for the separation of powers “has undermined the basic civil liberties of American citizens.” He said plainly, “The terrorists win when we abandon our civil liberties.” While there has been much talk about rising gasoline prices and how many homes John McCain owns, in the current presidential campaign, our own diminishing civil liberties and respect around the world are of less than passing interest.
Obviously, every survey of the primary concern of the voters leads with the economy. And the Democratic congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have shown no pressing interest, or any interest, in restoring the Constitution or the respect of our allies’ intelligence agencies, which are being undermined at home by their governments’ charges that they have committed crimes through complicity in CIA kidnappings and other actions on “the dark side.” Nor have Barack Obama or John McCain shown any concern with such abuses of Americans, as Mr. Biden emphasized in an April 3, 2007, speech at Drake University Law School: “The president has also abused the authority Congress gave him under the Patriot Act to issue National Security Letters. FBI officials issue these letters without judicial review to demand sensitive financial, credit, phone and Internet records.”
No judicial warrants needed to pry into our private lives? Does anyone care? Now that he is the Democratic vice presidential candidate, is Mr. Biden going to continue to voice these concerns, which are vital to our constitutional well-being? Mr. McCain used to emphasize that, in fighting the terrorists, it’s essential to remember, by contrast with them, “who we are.” But Mr. McCain, in refusing to vote to end the CIA’s “special powers” and secret prisons under a Bush executive order, and then strongly supporting the extraconstitutional military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, has forgotten the crucial importance of “who we are,” to ourselves and the rest of the world.
Mr. Biden, in the first speech he made after being chosen by Mr. Obama, who was standing beside him, sounded like a barking attack dog, hardly like the former presidential candidate intent on safeguarding our Constitution and our individual liberties as we battle our enemies’ murderous values.
As of this writing, it appears that Mr. Obama and his strategist chose Mr. Biden principally to be the campaign’s hit man against McCain. Mr. Obama’s own convictions have turned out to be, let us say, flexible. Is Mr. Biden going to diminish who he is now that he is back in the national spotlight by just being a hit man? Here is the previous essence of Mr. Biden on international human rights. Hardly mentioned by anyone on either side of this campaign was a recent revelation in an Aug. 28 report by the independent Sudan Tribune Web site. While there has been much hand-wringing over the ever-worsening atrocities in Sudan, only Mr. Biden struck real fear in Sudan’s monstrous president, Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir.
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in April 2007, Mr. Biden said of Gen. Bashir’s genocide: “This is incredible, what is happening, and I promise you, we are all going to sit here five to 10 years from now and ask ourselves why we didn’t do the things we can do … It’s time to put force on the table and use it.” However, the man Mr. Biden is supporting for president says (New York Times, Aug. 25) that Darfur reminds him “how sinful we can be.” Imagine how reassuring that bold Obama statement sounds in Darfur, where some humanitarian organizations are withdrawing because it’s become so dangerous to feed the refugees in their camps assaulted by Gen. Bashir’s forces.
At the Democratic convention on Aug. 27, in his passionate acceptance speech, Mr. Biden did not address any of his intentions during the primaries to repair the Constitution and bring the CIA under the rule of law. I can only hope that the other Biden, who for years, while in the Senate, has taught constitutional law at a Delaware college, will yet emerge before November.
Nat Hentoff’s column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.