Though it received very little press attention, it is not hyperbole to observe that this October 23 Memo was one of the most significant events in American politics in the last several decades, because it explicitly declared the U.S. Constitution — the Bill of Rights — inoperative inside the U.S., as applied to U.S. citizens. Just read what it said in arguing that neither the Fourth Amendment — nor even the First Amendment — can constrain what the President can do when overseeing “domestic military operations” (I wrote about that Memo when it was released last March and excerpted the most revealing and tyrannical portions: here). Here’s just a small sample to convey the rancid taste of that Memo (click on images to enlarge):
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Today’s NYT report is the first which reveals that high-level Bush officials actively considered and even advocated that the power to use the military to arrest American citizens on U.S. soil be used. In this instance, Cheney and Addington argued that the U.S. Army should be deployed to Buffalo to arrest six American citizens — dubbed the “Lackawanna Six” — suspected of being Al Qaeda members (though not suspected of being anywhere near executing an actual Terrorist attack). The Cheney/Addington plan was opposed by DOJ officials who wanted domestic law enforcement jurisdiction for themselves, and the plan was ultimately rejected by Bush, who instead dispatched the FBI to arrest them [all six were ultimately charged in federal court with crimes ("material support for terrorism"); all pled guilty and were sentenced to long prison terms, and they then cooperated in other cases, once again illustrating how effective our normal criminal justice and federal prison systems are in incapacitating Terrorists].
All that said, the Bush administration did use a very similar power when it dispatched FBI agents to arrest U.S. citizen Jose Padilla on American soil (at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport), but then very shortly thereafter transferred him to military custody, where he was held for the next 3 years with no trial, no charges, and no contact with the outside world, including lawyers. The only thing distinguishing the Padilla case from what Cheney/Addington argued be done in the Lackawanna Six case was that the military wasn’t used to make the initial apprehension of Padilla. But Padilla was then transferred to military custody and held on U.S. soil for years in a brig, incommunicado and tortured, with no charges of any kind (another U.S. citizen, Yaser Hamdi, was treated similarly until the Supreme Court ruled he was entitled to some sort of hearing, after which he was sent to Saudi Arabia).
All of this underscores why it is so important to vigorously oppose the efforts of the Obama administration (a) to continue many of the radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism programs and even to implement new ones (preventive detention, military commissions, extreme secrecy policies, warrantless surveillance, denial of habeas corpus) and (b) to endorse the core Orwellian premise that enables all of that (i.e., the “battlefield” is anywhere and everywhere; the battle against Terrorism is a “War” like the Civil War or World War II and justifies the same powers). By itself, the extreme injustice imposed by our Government on the individuals subjected to such tyrannical powers (i.e., those held in cages for years without charges or any prospect for release) should be sufficient to compel firm opposition. But the importance of these issues goes far beyond that. Even if the original intention is to use these powers in very limited circumstances and even for allegedly noble purposes (“only” for Guantanamo detainees who were tortured, “only” for people shipped to Bagram, “only” for the Most Dangerous Terrorists), it’s extremely dangerous to implement systems and vest the President with powers that depart from, and violently betray, our core precepts of justice.
It’s the nature of governments that powers of this type, once vested, rarely remain confined to their original purpose. They inevitably and invariably expand far beyond that. Powers that are endowed to address a limited and supposedly temporary circumstance almost always endure for years if not decades. Once a political official possesses a particular power, they almost never relinquish it voluntarily (there are exceptions – Jimmy Carter in 1978 signed, and subsequent Presidents until Bush complied with, FISA, which barred Presidents from eavesdropping without a judicial warrant, but such instances are exceedingly rare). Perhaps most dangerous of all, detention and punishment schemes that are implemented in relatively normal times (such as now) will inevitably expand, and expand wildly, in the case of some heightened threat (such as another Terrorist attack). Put another way, once we depart for ostensibly limited purposes from our fundamental principles of justice — in order to indefinitely detain “just some special cases” without charges — then, by definition, we’re fundamentally altering our system of justice far beyond that.
Worse still, if — after eight years of Yoo memos and theories of presidential omnipotence and denial of habeas corpus — a Democratic President with a Democratic Congress implements his own kinder, gentler version of such programs, then they will cease to be a twisted aberration from the post-9/11 Bush era and will instead become the new bipartisan, American consensus approach to justice. We’ll have a national (rather than right-wing) endorsement of the “principle” that national security threats justify denial of the most basic rights when it comes to detention and imprisonment. When I interviewed The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage in May, after he wrote another article detailing the similarities between the Bush/Cheney and Obama approaches to Terrorism, this is how he put it:
I had this interesting conversation when I was working on this article that came out this morning with Jack Balkin at Yale Law School, and he compares this moment to when Dwight Eisenhower took over, in 1953, and after FDR and then Truman had built up the New Deal administrative state, which Republicans hated, but then Eisenhower, instead of dismantling it, just sort of adjusted it with his own policies a little bit, and kept it going. And at that point, there was no longer any sort of partisan controversy about the fact that we were going to have this massive administrative state; it just sort of became a permanent part of the governing structure of the country.
And in the same way he said in 1969 when Richard Nixon took over from LBJ, he did some adjustments to the great society welfare state that LBJ had built up, but he didn’t scrap it. And at that point, Republicans and Democrats had both presided over the welfare state and the welfare state became part of just how government worked.
That in the same way, Obama now, by continuing the broad outlines of the various surveillance and detention and counter-terrorism programs, is draining them of plausible partisan controversy, and so they are going to become entrenched and consolidated as permanent features of American government as well, going forward.
Those are the stakes when it comes to debates over Obama’s detention, surveillance and secrecy policies. To endorse the idea that Terrorism justifies extreme presidential powers in these areas is to ensure that we permanently embrace a radical departure from our core principles of justice. It should come as no surprise that once John Yoo did what he was meant to do — give his legal approval to a truly limitless presidency, one literally unconstrained even by the Bill of Rights, even as applied to American citizens on U.S. soil — then Dick Cheney and David Addington sought to use those powers (in the Buffalo case) and Bush did use them (in the case of Jose Padilla). That’s how extreme powers work: once implemented, they will be used, and used far beyond their original intent — whether by the well-intentioned implementing President or a subsequent one with less benign motives. That’s why it’s so vital that such policies be opposed before they take root.
UPDATE: On a mostly (though not entirely) unrelated note, here is a prime example of Digby’s excellence: her commentary on the prevailing authoritarian mentality towards government and police power in the U.S., as reflected by the Gates controversy.
UPDATE II: As Kitt notes in Comments, Obama himself, as a candidate, repeatedly embraced these ideas. Here is what he said in February, 2008, after he convinced Chris Dodd to endorse him during the primary and while he tried to convince Dodd voters, who made civil liberties and a restoration core Constitutional values one of their highest priorities, to support him as well:
We know it’s time to time to restore our Constitution and the rule of law. This is an issue that was at the heart of Senator Dodd’s candidacy, and I share his passion for restoring the balance between the security we demand and the civil liberties that we cherish.
The American people must be able to trust that their president values principle over politics, and justice over unchecked power. I’ve been proud to stand with Senator Dodd in his fight against retroactive immunity for the telecommunications industry [GG: This was just four months before Obama would vote for a bill granting immunity to the telecoms]. Secrecy and special interests must not trump accountability [GG: This was roughly 11 months before the Obama DOJ began embracing the Bush/Cheney "state secrets" privilege to shield lawless programs from judicial review]. We must show our citizens — and set an example to the world — that laws cannot be ignored when it is inconvenient. Because in America — no one is above the law [GG: This was about a year before he announced that no Bush officials should be prosecuted for crimes because we must Look Forward].
It’s time to reject torture without equivocation. It’s time to close Guantanamo and to restore habeas corpus [GG: This was about a year before his administration began insisting that people we abduct and ship to Bagram have no right to habeas review]. It’s time to give our intelligence and law enforcement agencies the tools they need to track down and take out terrorists, while ensuring that their actions are subject to vigorous oversight that protects our freedom [GG: This was just four months before Obama would vote for a bill massively expanding warrantless eavesdropping]. So let me be perfectly clear: I have taught the Constitution, I understand the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution when I am President of the United States.
The Barack Obama who understands those things still exists. That’s why the effort to induce him to act on — rather than violate — those principles is so imperative.
UPDATE III: As several commenters note, this revelation about Cheney sheds new light on the reason many people were concerned by prior reports that a U.S. Army brigade, for the first time, was being permanently deployed to the domestic U.S. Many of us expressing that concern were accused of indulging bizarre paranoia that the U.S. Army would ever be deployed against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. I wonder how those who made such shrill accusations feel now in light of today’s revelation that Cheney was advocating for precisely that.
On a different note, I was on The Mike Malloy Show last night, with guest host Brad Friedman, discussing Obama and civil liberties. Those interested can hear the segments I did here, beginning at the start of HOUR ONE.