A US Predator drone. (US Airforce)
The peace movement, human rights and civil liberties groups, congressional progressives and even officials in the Obama administration can work on diverse pathways to prevent the consolidation of another Imperial Presidency.
The decade of the “Global War on Terror,” launched under President George W. Bush, and the “Long War Doctrine,” embraced by many in the Pentagon, have caused the undemocratic dynamic leading to the Imperial Presidency, which consists of rising scaffold of secrecy surrounding drone attacks, counterterrorism, detention, torture, CIA armies and cyber-warfare. As the national security leviathan grows, Congress, the mainstream media and public opinion have been marginalized.
When similar crises boiled up during the Nixon era, Congress responded with the Watergate investigations and then the 1973 passage of the War Powers Resolution, which required that US military operations be reported to Congress and limited to sixty to ninety days unless explicitly authorized by the legislative branch. Next came the first serious congressional hearings into CIA and FBI secret operations and domestic spying. Of particular interest was evidence of assassinations of foreign leaders carried out on executive orders. Those hearings by the Church committee in the Senate and Pike committee in the House resulted in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which was to be a watchdog protecting the Constitution against abuse. Another result was an executive ban on assassinations of foreign leaders, an order issued by President Ford and later clarified by President Reagan in 1981. Another was the 1978 creation of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court mandated to issue warrants for domestic spying.
Three decades later, similar threats to democracy and constitutional process have come full circle in the period since September 11, 2001. The Senate watchdog committee, which held hearings last week, failed to prevent the emergence of torture, renditions, secret prison, assassinations and military operations in which special units acted as judge, jury and executioner. President Obama ran for president in 2007–08 opposed to many of these abuses; when elected, he carried out his pledge to end the US war in Iraq but was unable to close Guantánamo as promised, and has perpetuated secret operations and, increasingly, drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, resulting in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilian casualties.
The ice officially broke last week when the Senate Intelligence Committee opened the first serious public discussion over the drone strikes and executive secrecy in a decade. The clash was provoked because of the president’s nomination of John Brennan as CIA director, which the committee is expected to endorse this week. The hearing revealed that even members of the Intelligence Committee itself “are in the dark” about many details of the agency’s programs.
But the significant public controversy represents an opening for reform once again. In fact, the president himself has been calling for unspecified constitutional safeguards over the very policies launched unilaterally, asking Congress to “rein in” the presidency. At the Senate hearing, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), the chairperson, and Senator Angus King (I-ME) proposed a secret court to apparently approve future assassinations based on evidence provided by the White House. The new mechanism is to be modeled on the FISA court, which has turned down only about 1 percent of tens of thousands of wiretap requests.