Bowing Before an American Tyranny
The 9/11 tragedy did become a demarcation point for the United States, although not in the way many Americans understand. Before that date six years ago, there existed an American Republic – albeit one in decline – but afterwards a New Age authoritarian state quickly took shape.
Though some defenders of the old Republic rose up, nobody was strong enough to protect it.
How this historic calamity happened – one of the most under-reported events of modern times – is the centerpiece of our new book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, which looks at the roles of aggressive Republicans, accommodating Democrats, bullying pundits and careerist journalists.
But the fact that the eclipse of the Republic did happen has gained more corroboration from a new book by Jack Goldsmith, the former chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) who clashed with senior White House lawyers over their expansive interpretation of presidential power.
“We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop,” explained Vice President’s Dick Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington, according to Goldsmith’s new book, The Terror Presidency.
Goldsmith wrote that Addington “and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint.”
However, “the absence of constraint” in the context of political leaders wielding the extraordinary authority of a powerful state is synonymous with tyranny, the antithesis of a democratic Republic with checks and balances, rule of law and respect for the will of an informed electorate.
This Bush tyranny combined its lust for unrestrained power with a parallel contempt for logic and objective information, becoming what might be called an imperial presidency in an anti-empirical world. Rationality and legality were brushed aside; action and toughness were all that mattered.
Even as President Bush stripped away the inalienable rights guaranteed by the Founders in the Constitution, he kept much of the population confused with misdirection, by asserting that he was taking these actions to defend "liberty" and "freedom."
In spring 2003, after becoming assistant attorney general at the influential Office of Legal Counsel, Goldsmith encountered the administration’s sophistry in the legal opinions that were the cornerstones of Bush’s claims of virtually unlimited presidential power in “wartime.”
“As I absorbed the opinions, I concluded that some were deeply flawed, sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the President,” wrote Goldsmith, who regards himself as a conservative Republican though with a rational bent.
Goldsmith also was stunned to encounter the ideological extremism of Bush’s White House, which chafed at even the modest limits put on Bush’s spying power by the secret court created in 1978 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
In one February 2004 meeting, Addington remarked, “We’re one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court,” according to Goldsmith’s book.
The very idea that a senior government official would, even flippantly, welcome a terrorist attack as a way to panic the American people and further enhance Bush’s powers underscores how contemptuous the White House had become of the Founders’ vision of a constitutional Republic based on law and reason.
Bush’s White House also would brook no dissent from legal experts within the Justice Department. When Goldsmith questioned the legal reasoning behind Bush’s unilateral decision to waive the Geneva Conventions in regard to the “war on terror,” Addington lashed out angrily.
“The President has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections,” Addington snapped. “You cannot question his decision.”
But Goldsmith proved to be a gutsy – if short-lived – bureaucratic infighter. When he suspended a legal opinion that permitted harsh interrogations of detainees, he did so without giving the White House advance warning.
On another occasion, when Goldsmith torpedoed a memo that permitted torture by narrowly defining it, he timed his move with the delivery of his resignation letter so the administration would find it tricky to reverse his opinion without drawing unwanted attention to the internal dispute.
Goldsmith left his influential position at the Office of Legal Counsel in July 2004 to return to academia.
Though the resistance from Goldsmith and a few others did complicate Bush’s consolidation of unlimited presidential power, the amassing of executive authority has continued to advance in the three years since Goldsmith left.
In September 2006, for instance, the Republican-controlled Congress pushed through the Military Commissions Act, which in effect creates an extra-constitutional legal system for handling a wide range of cases that Bush asserts involve “unlawful enemy combatants” and their accomplices, whether foreign or domestic.
Even after Democrats wrested control of Congress from the Republicans in November 2006, Bush continued to expand his powers. In May 2007, the Bush administration reversed long-standing legal policies and cleared the way for using powerful spy satellites against domestic targets.
Also in spring 2007, Congress acquiesced to giving Bush another blank check to fund the Iraq War. Then, just before the August recess, Democrats caved in to Bush’s demands for even more sweeping authority to spy on Americans who communicate or travel abroad.
So, the larger questions have yet to be resolved: Can Bush’s pursuit of what Goldsmith termed the “absence of constraint” be halted and reversed? Will some “larger force” finally materialize to stop the pushing from Addington and other Bush loyalists?
Can the great American Republic be salvaged and revived?
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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