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How Would A Patriot Act? by Glenn Greenwald

Dissecting the Presidency

Debuting at number 11 on The New York Times bestseller list on June 11th, How Would A Patriot Act was an internet-made bestseller. It had to be this way; with no mainstream press coverage and a tiny marketing budget, viral internet marketing was HWAPA?'s only hope for breaking out of the pack. The book details Bush's abuses of power, but since we aren't exactly starved for anti-Bush books these days, how was it that this anti-Bush book became the one so many are now reading?

First off, author Glenn Greenwald is a popular blogger who pulls in tens of thousands of hits per day, meaning the book came pre-equipped with an audience. Add to this Greenwald's ability to enlist even larger bloggers like Markos Moulitsas and Duncan Black (aka Atrios) to publicize the book. From there, a raft of smaller bloggers took over, talking up the book to their readership. The result was that How Would A Patriot Act? rocketed up Amazon's charts, eventually reaching number one in May. Greenwald was able to leverage that momentum into a spot on The Times bestseller list.

HWAPA?'s story is remarkable, but it begs the question: does this book live up to the hype? And even if it is legitimate, is it worth reading the book when you can just read Greenwald's blog for free? The answers: yes and yes.

Greenwald, a practicing lawyer specializing in constitutional law, starts off by informing readers that prior to the Bush Administration he was apolitical, and somewhat conservative. Like millions, he took little notice of Bush's victory in 2000, and lined up behind him after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It was only after the failed invasion of Iraq and the exposure of the duplicity behind it that Greenwald "began concluding, reluctantly, that the administration had veered far off course from defending the country."

Looking more closely at how Bush used the power granted to him after 9/11, Greenwald became alarmed. "I developed, for the first time in my life, a sense of urgency about the need to take a stand for our country and its defining principles." He started his blog Unclaimed Territory in October 2005 as a way to keep track of and speak out against Bush's abuses of power.

HWAPA? takes the material Greenwald has blogged on and brings it together into a unified whole. This allows him to do something blogs can't do: create a nuanced, book-length argument. It also gives him enough space to provide historical context.

That context figures prominently in Greenwald's examination of the President's continuing surveillance of Americans through the National Security Administration. In the 60s the NSA operated free from any sort of legal restraint, spying on journalists, Vietnam protestors, and civil rights activists. It even attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide by threatening to disseminate of a recording of him and one of his mistresses. In 1978, after decades of unethical NSA activities, Congress enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA created -- for the first time ever -- legal limits on the NSA's power to spy.

This bit of context is essential because it helps us gauge how seriously to take the news that the President chose to ignore FISA. Greenwald argues that, given FISA's history, we should take it very seriously, especially since the post-9/11 Congress was willing to give the President whatever changes to FISA he wanted. Greenwald quotes liberal Senators like Russ Feingold and Ted Kennedy voicing their complete support of the President to fight terrorism. He also quotes a study that found of 62 votes on terrorism-related bills post-9/11, "50 passed by unanimous consent or voice vote . . . 8 were unanimous, and 3 others registered only a single dissenting vote each." In the face of almost universal support in Congress, however, the President chose not to amend FISA but to ignore it. "At virtually the same time George W. Bush was publicly pledging to the nation that he would only engage in eavesdropping sanctioned by the new [amended FISA] law, he had secretly ordered that very law be violated."

Why, Greenwald asks, would the President lie about breaking FISA when it was clear that Congress would tailor it to fit his needs? The answer, which Greenwald traces throughout the remainder of HWAPA?, is that Bush's executive branch believes that the President is above the law. In support of this, Greenwald quotes documents from members of the Administration who propagate legal theories saying just that. He also presents a shamefully diverse array of case studies: the Administration's imprisonment of U.S. citizens without trial, the Administration's choice to torture prisoners in defiance of Congress and international treaties, the Administration's rampant use of signing statements, which allow the President to interpret a law passed by Congress to mean whatever he wants. Greenwald even quotes from many prominent Republicans who have, like him, put the pieces together and turned away in disgust.

Greenwald's history as a lawyer shows: he lays out a sound, well-documented case against the President. The book can be read in a few hours, and it makes a very convincing case that the President is abusing power. Unfortunately, however, there are those who will choose to ignore facts in favor of ideology. Greenwald has words for these people:

"We are a nation of laws, where people make the law. Our elected officials do not rule over us; they are our public servants . . . laws bind all citizens, including our elected officials.

"Those are the values to which any American patriot, by definition, subscribes. Contrary to the central deceit manufactured by Bush defenders over the last five years, patriotism is not defined by loyalty to a particular elected official or political party. . . . True patriotism is measured by the extent to which one believes in, and is willing to fight for and defend, the defining values and core principles of our country."

With HWAPA?, Greenwald argues that these values are not only under attack from a President determined to aggregate power, but also from a President determined to substitute fear and ideology for fact and debate. Although these accusations are not new, Greenwald's thorough research and clear prose make them feel both novel and weighty. His book is the work of a passionate mind determined to bring others to his cause. Judging from the way that book has taken off so far, it looks like it's working.

How Would A Patriot Act? by Glenn Greenwald
Working Assets Publishing
Paperback $12
ISBN: 0-977-94400-X
146 pages