In March, something happened in Congress that all Americans who love the rule of law need to hold in our teeth.
Senator Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
To which Clapper responded, "No, sir ... Not wittingly."
In light of what NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden has revealed about the NSA's domestic data-gathering, Clapper has now admitted that his answer in Senate testimony was "untruthful" - what ordinary people call a "lie."
Lying to Congress in testimony is, literally, a crime - it's a violation of federal law.
Raise your hand if you think that Clapper is going to serve any time in federal prison for lying to Congress.
Regardless of what one thinks about Clapper as an individual human being, if government officials can lie to Congress without consequence, we're in big trouble in terms of democracy and the rule of law, especially as these apply to the reform of U.S. foreign policy. If senior government officials can lie to Congress about the NSA's domestic surveillance of millions of Americans without consequence, what can't they lie to Congress about?
There's a culture in much of Washington that believes that government officials can do and say whatever they want, so long as it's in the service of the Empire. It's the foreign policy version of Nixon's "if the President does it, it's not illegal." That may be useful for running an Empire or it may not, but it's not the rule of law. If it's illegal for Joe and Mary Schmoe to do it, it's illegal for the President and his or her lieutenants to do it - that's the rule of law.
The Obama Administration has announced that the U.S. is going to arm Syrian rebels, and is considering imposing a "no fly zone" over Syria, which means bombing Syria. The public - Democratic, Republican, and Independent - is overwhelmingly opposed. Congress has neither authorized arming Syrian rebels or imposing a no-fly zone. Under the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, in the absence of an armed attack on the United States, Congress, not the President, has the power to authorize the use of military force.
The Administration says that it will make sure that U.S. weapons won't fall into the hands of people who want to hurt Americans, or people who execute Catholic priests. Many independent observers think this assertion is bunk.
What basis would we have for believing that the Administration's assertion is not likely to be a lie, if there are no consequences for Clapper's lie about the NSA's domestic surveillance? If Clapper can lie to Congress about the NSA's domestic surveillance without consequence, what incentive does he have to hold back from lying to Congress about Syria? Or Iran? What confidence can we have about Administration statements about Syria or Iran, if there is no Congressional debate or scrutiny?
Like the Fourth Amendment, the War Powers Resolution is not going to enforce itself. If we want the War Powers Resolution to be enforced, Members of Congress have to speak up and take action. That means members of the public have to speak up and take action, because that's what gets Members of Congress to move.
A bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives has started to stand up. They've introduced legislation that would expressly prohibit the Obama Administration intervening militarily in Syria's sectarian civil war without explicit Congressional authorization.
Reps. Peter Welch (D-VT), Chris Gibson (R-NY), Rick Nolan (D-MN), and Walter Jones (R-NC) have introduced bipartisan legislation (H.R. 2494) to block U.S. military intervention in Syria without an affirmative vote of Congress. Identical legislation (S. 1201) has been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT).
Sending military assistance to Syrian rebels, or any direct military intervention, would lead to Americanization of Syria's sectarian civil war. Congress and the American people should be part of a vigorous debate before any such military escalation takes place. Urge your Senators and Representative to support legislation that would require Congressional authorization before any military escalation in Syria.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.