Saturday, December 24, 2005

When Power Corrupts

Published on Friday, December 23, 2005
by the Denver Post (Colorado)
 
by Reggie Rivers
 

If you owned a bank, common sense would tell you that you can't let your tellers enter the vault without supervision. If you ran a pharmacy, you wouldn't give your employees unfettered access to the drugs.

Although the overwhelming majority of people are honest, fair and trustworthy, the average person simply can't be put into a position in which he has great authority and the power to act in complete secrecy.

Imagine that you're managing a grocery store, but you don't require your clerks to reconcile the count in their drawers at the end of each shift. You trust them. They're good people who have been with you a long time, and you don't think you need to watch them closely.

In this type of structure, it's just a matter of time before one of them takes some money out of the till. There will come a day when one of them ends up in a desperate situation (e.g., his car is about to be repossessed or a family member falls ill) and he'll reluctantly decide to give himself a short-term loan. The first time, he might even repay the money.

But a few weeks or months later, he'll give himself another loan, and then another. Yes, he's wrong for stealing, but part of it is your fault for setting him up for failure. You simply can't give people access to the money and then turn your back.

Most of us understand that strict procedures and regular supervision are among the basic building blocks of a successful business, but for some reason, we fail to see that the same infrastructure is required to run a successful political system.

We've given President Bush the authority to wage war on terrorism domestically and abroad, and he's come to believe he can proceed without the close supervision of the courts, Congress, the media, international organizations or the American people.

The result is completely predictable. It's little surprise that prisoners were secretly mistreated at Abu Ghraib, allegedly abused at Guantanamo Bay, improperly held in secret prisons in Eastern Europe without charges or trials - all out of sight of U.S. or international monitors.

If you give someone great power and allow him to shroud himself in secrecy as he uses it, then these results are inevitable.

The latest revelation is that the National Security Agency has been conducting warrant-less eavesdropping on American citizens. Instead of apologizing, the president has argued that we need to trust him with authority to secretly monitor all of us.

When will we learn? How much abuse has to occur before we finally understand that we can't trust President Bush or any other president with this much authority to operate in secret? We're the bosses, and our elected officials are our employees. Yet they keep taking money out of the vault, and we refuse to institute procedures that would prevent future abuses.

Former president Richard Nixon is the poster-child for the problems that can develop when the executive branch is allowed to run amok, and shortly after he resigned, Congress passed laws to require closer monitoring of the Oval Office.

This week, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective especially in the national security area."

Is he joking? In the wake of all these scandals that reveal that President Bush has circumvented a myriad of laws, is the vice president really arguing that Nixon had it right all along?

At some point, we all have to wake up and understand that secrecy for people in positions of power is never a good idea.

Former Bronco Reggie Rivers is the host of "Global Agenda" Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on KBDI-Channel 12. His column appears every Friday.

2005 The Denver Post

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