Saturday, December 17, 2005

Presidential powers

Atrios and Digby have it exactly right regarding the broader ramifications of the recent revelations that President Bush ordered domestic spying on Americans without any kind of oversight or review: Bush almost certainly broke the law.

But this is perfectly in keeping with a pattern of power acquisition this administration demonstrated early on, and has maintained steadfastly throughout, particularly in its decision to invade Iraq, as well as its expansions of executive power in the form of military tribunals and "enemy combatant" declarations. Indeed, we'd had hints of the administration's animosity to limits on such surveillance all along.

It all brings back something I wrote almost three years ago:
Joan Didion makes a noteworthy point:

"I made up my mind," he had said in April, "that Saddam needs to go." This was one of many curious, almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I've made up my mind, I've said in speech after speech, I've made myself clear. The repeated statements became their own reason: "Given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity for regime change in Iraq," James R Schlesinger, who is now a member of Richard Perle's Defence Policy Board, told The Washington Post in July, "our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place".

This encapsulates Bush's entire approach to governance. In Bush's view, the president has -- by virtue of holding the office, even without the actual mandate of the voters -- almost godlike powers, able to decide the fate of entire nations by virtue of his election, or in this case, installment by court fiat. (It's becoming clear why they hated Bill Clinton so much -- liberals aren't supposed to possess such power.)

Or, as Bush told Bob Woodward: "I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

This approach is clear not merely in such brusque asides as "Who cares what you think?", but also in the administration's refusal to hand over documents related to Enron and Halliburton's influences in the Oval Office, as well as a host of domestic issues ranging from the environment to economic and tax policies. It also plays a major role in Bush's messianic militarism.

Most of all, it's an important part of the administration's aggressive acquisition of new and wide-ranging powers for the executive branch. Most of this is being masterminded by Solicitor General Ted Olson, who has been making it his mission since the mid-'80s, when he worked for Reagan's Justice Department, to overturn the losses of executive power that came with the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s.

But the powers this administration has been acquiring go well beyond even that range (much of which had to do with executive privilege and open governance). They now extend into entirely new areas, wrought mainly by Bush's "Military Order" that allows the administration to arrest and detain American citizens as "enemy combatants" without counsel or even notification of arrest -- powers that appear to have been dreamed up by Kafka, but in fact were a product of the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II (I hope to have more available soon about that point in an article I've written).

The administration's assertion of these powers flows out of Bush's godlike view of himself, and his minions' simultaneous promotion of that view. That was especially clear in Olson's explanation for the Washington Post (in a Dec. 2 story by Charles Lane titled, "In Terror War, 2nd Track for Suspects," which is no longer available online) why Bush, and not the courts, should be given these powers:

"At the end of the day in our constitutional system, someone will have to decide whether that [decision to designate someone an enemy combatant] is a right or just decision," Olson said. "Who will finally decide that? Will it be a judge, or will it be the president of the United States, elected by the people, specifically to perform that function, with the capacity to have the information at his disposal with the assistance of those who work for him?"

Of course, Ted -- who argued Bush v. Gore before the Supreme Court -- well knows that to hold the presidency, one needs not even be actually elected.

One need only have an unquenchable thirst for power. Perhaps the most dangerous such thirst in American history.

And looking more dangerous all the time.

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