With the end of 2008 almost upon us, the end of the Bush administration is also tantalizingly close. The poet Shelley wrote, "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" This year, our national spring begins on Jan. 20th.
President Barack Obama's task will be monumental: to rebuild our nation from the rubble of the Ozymandias administration. Even the cornerstone will have to be righted — resurrecting our nation's civil liberties.
That brings me to my annual end-of-year column, in which I award the "Freeby" to a person who has furthered the cause of civil liberties in some significant or courageous way.
This year's deserving recipient is Thomas Tamm, the former Justice Department lawyer who disclosed that the NSA was engaging in warrantless domestic spying. His heroic deed took place in the spring of 2004, when Tamm contacted a reporter for the New York Times on a subway pay phone with the blockbuster information that the Bush administration was wiretapping people inside the United States without first obtaining warrants.
In a recent report in Newsweek, Tamm reveals his identity and describes why he disclosed the administration's misdeeds.
Tamm was fed up with what he saw as a trashing of our constitutional heritage. In addition to learning about the shadowy eavesdropping program that bypassed the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — a court set up specifically to oversee sensitive national security spying operations — Tamm was also made privy to classified CIA cables that described the rendition program, where suspects were sent to other countries for abusive interrogations.
He'd had enough. "This is not what the Department of Justice is all about," Tamm told MSNBC.
It is no surprise that there have been tragic personal consequences for the 56-year-old since the New York Times story on the NSA spying program finally appeared in December 2005. Tamm has lost his job at the Justice Department and is facing potential prosecution. As Newsweek reports, 18 FBI agents raided his home last year. His relatives, friends and associates have been grilled.
I hope the Obama administration removes this legal cloud and finds a place for Tamm, just as it tapped retired Gen. Eric Shinseki for the top post at Veterans Affairs. You'll remember that Shinseki retired soon after he embarrassed his bosses by predicting Iraq's occupation would take many more troops than the administration claimed. If the incoming administration is looking for truth-tellers who aren't afraid to do what is right even if it may be personally ruinous, Tamm is its man.
Another commendable lawyer who deserves recognition this year is Darrel Vandeveld, a Guantanamo prosecutor who refused to go along with a military commission system that he saw as deeply flawed.
Vandeveld is at least the fourth prosecutor to resign in protest of the Guantanamo proceedings. But having been assigned to prosecute seven tribunal cases, his critique is particularly devastating. Vandeveld accuses the government of holding back evidence from defense attorneys that may be of help to their clients.
As to why he came forward, Vandeveld told the Los Angeles Times: "I don't know how else the creeping rot of the commissions and the politics that fostered and continued to surround them could be exposed to the curative powers of the sunlight. . . . More than anything, I hope we can rediscover some of our American values."
More than anything, I share that hope.
Finally, no annual roundup of extraordinary acts in defense of civil liberties would be complete without mentioning Boumediene vs. Bush. In a 5-4 ruling in June, the U.S. Supreme Court did nothing less than salvage our liberty. By recognizing that prisoners at Guantanamo have habeas corpus rights and may challenge in court the legality of their indefinite confinement, we stepped back from the brink of tyranny.
With the sun setting on the Bush administration, the existential threats to our civil liberties will soon subside. No longer will self-sacrificial heroism be required to simply retain our most basic rights. But history teaches that watchdogs are needed, no matter who is in power.
Bon courage to them.