Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Great White Executive Power Sharks

Any American concerned about the relentless pursuit of absolute power by the Bush administration must read Jane Mayer's latest New Yorker article . As compelling as any narrative non-fiction you're likely to read this year, "The Memo" recounts the brave efforts of senior career government officials to curb the abusive interrogation techniques practiced in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. Mayer's article is also an important piece of reportage that documents the actions of key Bush administration insiders as they conspired to place the President of the United States above the constraints of constitutional and international law.

Nearly the entire cast of administration heavies appears in the piece.

Administration lawyers Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and David Addington write the memos that authorize "cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees" and espouse "an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s Commander-in-Chief authority.” Other administration attorneys closely aligned with Vice President Dick Cheney join ranks to squelch opposition to official policies. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sends Major General Geoffrey Miller to Guantanamo with "carte blanche" permission to do whatever is necessary to obtain information from prisoners, then sends him to Iraq to do more of the same. Confronted with reports of prisoner abuse, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan prevaricates. George W. Bush asserts that “Any activity we conduct is within the law."

Mayer includes pieces of her interview with Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, who told NPR last fall about the torture policy audit trail "that ran from the Vice-President’s office and the Secretary of Defense down through the commanders in the field."
When I spoke to [Wilkerson] recently, he said, “I saw what was discussed. I saw it in spades. From Addington to the other lawyers at the White House. They said the President of the United States can do what he damn well pleases. People were arguing for a new interpretation of the Constitution. It negates Article One, Section Eight, that lays out all of the powers of Congress, including the right to declare war, raise militias, make laws, and oversee the common defense of the nation.” Cheney’s view, Wilkerson suggested, was fuelled by his desire to achieve a state of “perfect security.” He said, “I can’t fault the man for wanting to keep America safe, but he’ll corrupt the whole country to save it.”


As we have seen in the recent controversy surrounding the NSA domestic surveillance program, the administration continues to claim absolute authority for Mr. Bush to conduct the so-called Global War on Terror in any manner he sees fit, citing executive constitutional powers that appear nowhere in the Constitution and permissions granted by Congress that aren't actually delineated in the September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.

Now, as always, the Bush team isn't about to let facts or reality get in the way of their bottomless thirst for absolute rule, as illustrated in this February 18 report from the San Francisco Chronicle (hand salute to Nitpicker):
Legal challenges against Bush's efforts are likely to fail because the president has constitutional power to act as commander in chief and conduct foreign affairs, said Kris Kobach, former counsel to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"Article II will trump anything Congress tries to do through statute," Kobach said.

This is the crux of the Bush power game strategy. If enough lawyers pour enough lies into the Big Brother Broadcast, enough of the people will be fooled enough of the time to keep Big Brother and his little helpers in power.

Just for grins, let's review--one more time--what Article II of the Constitution actually says about presidential war powers.
The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States…


He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur[.]

That's all, folks!

Mayer's piece serves to remind us that from the outset, this administration aspired to establish levels of executive authority that amount to totalitarianism. And as the right wing rhetoric over the NSA spy program confirms, these great white power sharks won't curb their insatiable appetites for absolute rule until somebody stops them. And who's going to stop them? The courts, stacked with Bush appointees, aren't likely to. Nor is the White House complaint GOP ruled Congress.

Where are Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert Shaw when you need them?


For more discussion of presidential powers, see The Ides of December and Top Ten War Powers Myths.


  1. Anonymous7:48 PM

    I read The Memo yesterday and heard Mayers on NPR today. Impressive.


  2. I'll have to look for the Mayer interview. Wonder if it's up on the NPR site yet.