AUSTIN, Texas -- We live in interesting times, we do, we do. We can read in our daily newspapers that our government is about to launch a three-day propaganda blitz to convince us all that its secret program to spy on us is something we really want and need. "A campaign of high-profile national security events," reports The New York Times, follows "Karl Rove's blistering speech to national Republicans" about what a swell political issue this is for their party.

The question for journalists is how to report this. President Bush says it's a great idea and he's proud of the secret spy program? Attorney General Gonzales explains breaking the law is no problem? Dick Cheney says accept spying, or Osama bin Laden will get you?

Or might we actually have gotten far enough to point out that the series of high-profile security events is in fact part of a propaganda campaign by our own government? Should we report it as though it were in fact a campaign tactic, a straight political ploy: The Republicans say spying is good for you, but the Democrats say it is not -- equal time to both sides?

Perhaps we have some obligation to try to sift through what it means that our government is spying on us in violation of the law and the Constitution.

Then there's the problem of reporting within the context of this administration's other propaganda efforts. "We do not torture," and, "We are not running a gulag of secret detention centers," are two of the more recent examples, superceding the golden oldies -- like the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud.

Furthermore, the Rove offensive is not to admit that we are indeed running a gulag of secret detention camps, but to attack those who point it out and put them under investigation for revealing government secrets and helping the enemy. Even without the intimidation, how do you report something claimed by George W. Bush as though you hadn't recently heard him say he would support John McCain's amendment barring torture -- and then turn around and claim that he has the right to violate that law?

I genuinely appreciate the response by real conservatives on this issue -- the libertarians, the true heirs of Barry Goldwater, the all-government-is-bad grumps. It's called principle. But I am confounded by the authoritarian streak in the Republican Party backing Bush on this. To me it seems so simple: Would you think this was a good idea if Hillary Clinton were president? Would you be defending the clear and unnecessary violation of the law? Do you have complete confidence that she would never misuse this "inherent power" for any partisan reason?

The warrantless wiretaps reportedly covered thousands of calls, and the information obtained was widely circulated among federal agencies. I know one guy who is now on the federal no-fly list. His sin? Co-authoring an unflattering book about Karl Rove. What a menace to national security he is.

One of the odder features of our time is that much of our political debate is cast in "moral" terms, with such helpful authorities as Pat Robertson holding forth on whom we should assassinate next. A more useful contribution from this direction comes from Jimmy Carter in his new book, "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis."

I am a great admirer of Carter's and glad to hear his soft Southern Christian voice once more. But it occurs to me that in his quiet way, many of his arguments are as pragmatic as they are moral.

As one with considerable faith in the common sense of Americans , it occurs to me we may yet rescue ourselves from this bootless skunk match over morality by using plain sense, instead. Many of Carter's points center on the fact that our war on terrorism is not working. Iraq is not working (hard to even count the ways). Major terrorist attacks themselves more than tripled from 2003, to 655 attacks in 2004. Our support in the Middle East sinks lower and lower. The region is not becoming more democratic.

What would happen if we had not a political, but a pragmatic debate about all of this: We have made a horrible mess of this entire war on terrorism, now how do we fix it? What do we do? I realize it's a bit simplistic of me after all this time, but I really think one of the best things we could do for ourselves is deal honestly with the facts. Because we have made a mess of this does not mean we are a pitiful, helpless giant -- the United States still has more sheer military power than anyone else on earth. But using it is not necessarily the best way to get the results we want.

Because we are stuck with this administration for another three years, I think it important to begin to get past the defensiveness and drawing attention away and blame games that big messes provoke. And part of that calls on American journalism to get over reporting the Bush administration as though it were a credible source. We need to face facts.

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