Following the spirit of the law isn't enough

There is too much 'let's move on' coming from the Bush administration.

Laws matter - at least that's what we're told in this town, which isn't surprising since so many are made here. Laws are the rules by which we all have to play. And legislation makes its way through the system so that the rules can be debated and discussed.

That's why the debate here has seemed so odd the past few months. This administration has made mistakes. That's to be expected; they all do. But increasingly when something goes wrong, this administration is arguing that whatever might have happened, regarding rules or laws, it's time to move on.

Before we went to war in Iraq, were all the safeguards followed to prevent mistakes or the bending of intelligence? That's not relevant now, the White House says. We're there. Let's move on. How was the decision to go forward on warrantless wiretapping made? Don't bother asking. They'll work out something to ensure more oversight. Detainee abuse? Abu Ghraib was awful, but it's been taken care of.

In every case, when someone comes forward to challenge an action, the response is the same: We're past that now and if you want to ask questions you're simply playing the blame game.

Well, in a sense, yes, we are, because that's what the system is supposed to do when something goes wrong. Those with authority look back over what happened and try to make a determination of culpability. It's a way of (a) finding out what actually happened, and (b) dissuading others from doing it again. Just like the court system that tries all those pesky cases after problems have been discovered. Does anyone look at what happened with, say, Enron and honestly think, "Well, now that we've stopped the wrongdoing and corrected the mistake, we can skip the legal process"?

That's not to equate warrantless wiretaps or decisions on Iraq or detainee abuse with what the management at Enron did. Misjudgment, not malevolence, is the probable force behind the missteps on those big government issues. But the question is, why are we supposed to consider some mistakes and abuses worthy of finding the root cause, while we let others, particularly those involving the government, slide?

Increasingly, the Bush administration looks as if its abiding principle is that the ends justify the means. Yeah, they say, there may be a law regarding this issue or that one, but we think we're following the spirit of the law - or we really don't think much of the law - so we're going ahead anyway. If we do something "wrong," we're doing it for the country's good, and no one should ask questions about it.

Last week's Dubai port story provides an interesting example. Once word got out that the deal was going forward, the administration's immediate response was "it's too late, the deal is already done." We'd just about "moved on" until the cries of disapproval became so clearly bipartisan and loud, that it appears there was some rethinking on the issue.

It's early in the story to know if allowing ports in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, among others, to be owned by the company controlled by the United Arab Emirates, is a real security risk or not. Considering the many leaks in the nation's port security system, the sale seems, at worst, like just another problem, not the major one.

But the issue is why didn't the administration do more to run the sale plans by others within the government, particularly Republicans in Congress? There was a law on the books that required a mandatory 45-day review of the transaction since the ports were being sold to a state-owned foreign company.

The administration has argued the review wasn't needed because none of the agencies that reviewed the sale raised any objections. But several key people within the administration and those agencies, - Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Treasury Secretary John Snow and, yes, President Bush - didn't even know about the sale until it was finalized.

Ah yes, details, details.

Who knows what will ultimately happen with the sale now? Congress may be ready to impose its own 45-day review period on the deal. Meanwhile, Mr. Snow now says Treasury may change how the approval process works in such situations so that Congress is given more of a heads-up.

That's a good idea. But while we're at it, maybe we should take a good look at how the deal was OK'd and why top people in the administration didn't really know about it until after it was all but done. We could even do it right now, before we've "moved on."

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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