Gore Disappoints Once Again

From a distance it is difficult to understand former Vice-President Al Gore. The old Al Gore of the 1980’s was the essence of a serious, thoughtful Senator who eschewed extreme positions or language. He gave careful thought to policy issues. Though sometimes he displayed an amateurish certitude about environmental issues, he was earnest. On national security, Al Gore was the rare Democrat who was not reflexively anti-military, uncomfortable and embarrassed about American wealth and power. During the first Gulf War, led by the first President George Bush, Gore was one of a minority of Senate Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force by Bush to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion.

Even during the Clinton years, despite some ethical lapses with regard to campaign fund raising, Gore, in comparison to the often puerile President Bill Clinton, appeared an adult. Gore spent a good fraction of his 2000 presidential campaign against the then Governor George W. Bush desperately seeking to escape the sleazier aspects of the Clinton years.

Something about the drawn-out, heart-breaking, devastatingly close loss to George Bush in the 2000 presidential election altered Al Gore’s public persona. He was no longer a serious person. He morphed into an angry, almost bitter, political hack. It is not just that his positions lurched to the Left. More than Gore’s positions changed. Almost overnight, Gore’s temperament became petulant and boorish.

We cannot ascertain with certainty from afar if the wrenching 2000 election snapped something in Gore. An alternate possibility is that Gore’s underlying personality was revealed once it was unconstrained by the discipline the maintaining political viability. However, it is hard to believe that Gore could have effectively concealed his true temperament and ideology for a long public career before 2000.

Not even Democrats any longer cling to the fiction that Gore is still a serious thinker. Gore’s recent speech at Constitution Hall on January 16 is just one more step in the decline of the former vice-president into irrelevancy.

The central question addressed by Gore’s speech is whether a President has the legal authority, under his powers as Commander in Chief, to eavesdrop on communications between enemies outside the United States when they are communicating to people, perhaps even US citizens, in the United States. It was recently revealed, that President Bush had authorized such surveillance to those communication with Al Qaeda or its associates outside the US.

The issue is a serious one which straddles the borders between executive, legislative, and judicial functions. However, Gore in his speech used the phrase “rule of law” nine times without conceding the uncertainty of the law in this issue. Although the US Supreme Court has not ruled here, a number of lower court decisions concede Presidential authority to conduct wireless searches without a warrant in case of national security.

If he had not been so bent on trying to inflict political damage on the President, Gore could have offered an interesting perspective. After all, he had served in high positions in both the legislative and executive branches. How does Gore square his present conclusion that the Commander in Chief does not have warrantless search authority with the fact that the Clinton Administration used such warrantless searches in prosecuting spy Aldridge Ames? Does Gore agree with Clinton’s former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick that the “Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes.”

Maybe Gore had not considered such issues before, but it would seem incumbent on him to present his current disagreement with President George Bush on these matters in the context of the decisions of his previous Administration.

Though one would hate to depend too much on what is reported on 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft reported there on February 27, 2000 (the last year of the Clinton Administration) that:

“If you made a phone call today or sent an e-mail to a friend, there’s a good chance what you said or wrote was captured and screened by the country’s largest intelligence agency. The top-secret Global Surveillance Network is called Echelon, and it’s run by the National Security Agency and four English-speaking allies: Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.”

Does Gore deny what Steve Kroft reported? If not can he explain under what authority the Clinton Administration supported Echelon?

Perhaps most irresponsibly, Gore tried to tie Bush’s national security surveillance of communications with Al Qaeda with FBI wiretaps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. That was a case of using wiretapping authority to target domestic political opponents. There is no evidence that this was the use of the present surveillance. To connect the two is a tasteless exploitation of the travails of King during the Civil Rights movement.

Instead of the careful consideration and balancing of the important issues involved, Gore seeks to criminalize Constitutional and legal disagreements by calling for a special prosecutor. An independent legal opinion commissioned by the Justice Department recommended a special prosecutor to investigate Gore’s campaign finance irregularities. Gore escaped this predicament because Attorney General Janet Reno stubbornly refused to appoint one. One might have thought under such circumstances, Gore would shy away from cavalierly recommending a special prosecutor. One might have thought that someone who hid behind the steadfast defense, that there was “no controlling legal authority” would decline to criminalize actions in murky areas of the law. One would have thought that some who once so assiduously sought the respect accorded a serious policy thinker could have used his voice to explore the important legal and Constitutional questions recently raised.

Gore could have become an elder statesman when the Democrats could have used one; instead he has become a clanging cymbal.

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