Following questions raised by FNM Deputy Leader Loretta Butler Turner on the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) National Security Minister Dr. B. J. Nottage personalized the issue, angrily suggesting that the queries constitute an attack on his character. Mrs. Butler Turner did not personalize her concerns, never mentioning Dr. Nottage by name in her rally remarks.
Dr. Nottage got it wrong. The issue is not about his character per se. It is about the rule of law. It is also about his poor exercise of authority and that of the government who share a collective failure and responsibility for not providing a legal basis for the NIA.
The FNM’s Deputy Leader raised consequential legal, policy and privacy questions, little of which Dr. Nottage addressed. This columnist has regard for the Minister and wished that he would have answered the substantive issues raised.
Perhaps he was defensive, embarrassed, because he realized his blunder. Whether he appreciates the magnitude of the blunder is another question. His reaction is part of a troubling pattern with the administration.
The Cabinet Room has become a bunker, its rarefied environment intoxicating a seeming majority of ministers with a certain paranoia, delusion and hubris. There is also a dangerous groupthink.
The bunker mentality has exploded with all manner of arrogance, defensiveness, hypocrisy and considerable anger, all added to the government’s record of incompetence, a cavalier disregard for abiding by certain norms, and a mentality that the PLP may do just about whatever it wishes with little consequence.
Having neglected a charter of promises with umpteen delays in self-imposed deadlines, many in the PLP react angrily when asked why the government has not honoured its commitments on many issues.
The Christie administration is often non-transparent and unaccountable, dismissive of just about any criticism. There is a collective irresponsibility on a variety of matters with a galloping pattern of abuse of power. There is a staggering arrogance and the emergence of, at minimum, a soft despotism that is worsening.
There is no accountability about $10 million budgeted for a mortgage relief program that was not spent as approved by Parliament, a contemptuous disregard for Parliament and for the rule of law.
The promised accounting of reportedly millions in campaign funds given to the PLP by Peter Nygard, who claims to have helped draft stem cell legislation, is never made.
A man in lawful police custody is allowed to be married in a police station, nuptials reportedly blessed by a political figure contradicting a command by the Police Commissioner. There is still no full accounting as to what happened in terms of the alleged abuse of Cuban detainees last year.
The Minister of Tourism makes an announcement about possible plans to regulate web shops of which the Prime Minister claims or feigns ignorance. Brimming with pique the Tourism Minister threatens to cut off the press when quizzed on another deadline the government may fail to meet.
The Minister of Labour attacks the press. He smugly refuses to table an approximately $20 million dollar contract. The prime minister has a glaring conflict of interest having served as a consultant to an oil exploration company.
Meanwhile, the generally out-of-touch Christie lives in a parallel universe of police outriders, bombast and speechifying, daydreaming of an official residence possibly emblazoned with a prime ministerial coat of arms, all the while unable to control a gaggle of ministers who generally do as they wish and who pay little heed to the seemingly titular prime minister.
And the Minister of National Security has blundered badly by failing to introduce legislation promised some time ago on the NIA. What makes matters worse is that Butler Turner raised the issue in last year’s budget debate but it was ignored by an out-of-control government.
A year later and not only is there no legislation. The government appears to be operating an intelligence agency with no legal standing, perhaps illegally. It is a dangerous precedent by an arrogant government.
This is one of the more serious failures of the PLP. It is highly unlikely that something of this nature would have happened in the UK. If unimaginably it had, the government of the day may not have survived such a colossal error and the responsible minister would have had to resign under pressure from the press and the opposition.
Defensively, Dr. Nottage noted in this journal: “There’s nothing unusual about it. [The NIA] Intelligence organizations exist in many countries.”
But there is something highly unusual and irregular. In most democracies such an agency has a legal underpinning with clear oversight mechanisms.
If a US administration set up an intelligence agency with no legal standing there would be a congressional firestorm with the administration facing all manner of legal entanglements especially if such an agency had conducted operations without enjoying legal standing. It might be an impeachable offence because it may be criminal for an agency to operate without a legal basis.
The debate about the NIA is not about Dr. Nottage’s character. It is about the character and nature of our democracy. A critical element in securing democracy is the rule of law. Leaders come and go. The law provides a check on leaders and governments.
John Adams’ adage that a country should be a government or nation of laws, not of men, speaks to the need for laws regulating and restraining the conduct and work of government.
There is a corresponding adage by James Madison which speaks to constraining the exercise of power by us mortals: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” We are not angels and even good people may abuse power and cut corners.
It is not about taking Dr. Nottage at his word that he is doing the right thing, especially since the right thing to have done was to establish the NIA in law.
By failing to do so Dr. Nottage exercised poor leadership and judgment. This is a stunning lapse by someone who should have known better than to have such an agency without legislation in place.
The government introduced legislation to create the National Training Agency. Yet on a matter of great magnitude such as the NIA, set up almost two years ago, purportedly dealing with the most sensitive national security matters, and possibly infringing on the rights of citizens, the government -- either through incompetence or by deliberation -- failed to establish its legal basis providing it with statutory power and clear oversight mechanisms.
Instead of attacking Butler Turner, Dr. Nottage should accept responsibility and apologize for his and the government’s blunder. Tellingly, none of his colleagues appear to have come to his defence.
There are legitimate concerns about privacy and there is often a mistrust of government. In failing to provide a legal foundation for the NIA the government has alarmed many Bahamians, leaving it open to charges of spying.
Intelligence is a very sensitive matter. Dr. Nottage and the government have exacerbated fears by operating for near two years and counting an intelligence agency that it has failed to establish in law.
In the US, President Obama and his administration often note that they can be trusted to do the right thing in the intelligence field. No democracy should solely trust the supposed ethical restraint of leaders. The rule of law is a guardian of liberty and fundamental rights.
There are often rogue elements in the intelligence field. Not every administration may be as inclined to ethical restraint, which is why we are a nation of laws.
The UK Guardian recently reported:
“Edward Snowden's disclosures of the scale of mass surveillance are ‘an embarrassing indictment’ of the weak nature of the oversight and legal accountability of Britain's security and intelligence agencies, MPs have concluded.
“A highly critical report by the Commons home affairs select committee published on Friday calls for a radical reform of the current system of oversight of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, arguing that the current system is so ineffective it is undermining the credibility of the intelligence agencies and parliament itself.”
Instead of deflecting responsibility and groaning about his character, Dr. Nottage needs to fix this quickly. If not, history will judge him poorly in this area especially in light of his stated values on democracy during his public career, including as leader of the Coalition for Democratic Reform, the name and goals of which should be a telling reminder to him.