Dismantling the Imperial Presidency | The Nation


Dismantling the Imperial Presidency

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Three areas are particularly important in the administration's early days: torture, the law that the executive follows and accountability. In each case, measures can be taken that would correct a policy the Obama administration clearly disagrees with and simultaneously help dismantle the Bush/Cheney constitutional revolution. (The other pressing issue to face the incoming administration--detention policy--is so complex and difficult, largely thanks to the outgoing administration's compounded mistakes, that it needs to be looked at separately.)

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Aziz Huq
Aziz Huq is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and previously litigated national security...

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Begin with torture. President Bush's repeated disavowals of government-sanctioned torture have created cognitive dissonance: White House protestations that "we don't torture" are no longer believed. An Obama administration dedicated to restoring America's tarnished international reputation must do more than talk. The best way to begin is for Congress to enact and President Obama to sign already introduced legislation that would limit the intelligence community to the specific interrogation tactics listed in the recently revised Army Field Manual. This law would make it clear that the CIA in particular cannot use what it euphemistically calls "enhanced interrogation techniques." In signing the law, Obama should eschew the weaseling signing provisos favored by Bush and instead forthrightly recognize that there is no presidential override when it comes to torture. This bill is a golden opportunity to restore international credibility and repudiate the monarchical presidency. So it is unfortunate that Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden have already begun backsliding on it.

Also on the torture front, the Obama administration should candidly acknowledge past wrongs, thereby abandoning the Bush/Cheney demand for absolute secrecy. In legal cases filed by torture victims such as Maher Arar, Khaled el-Masri and Shafiq Rasul, the Bush administration has parried demands for acknowledgment or restitution with a sweeping constitutional theory of "state secrets." Rejecting this theory would be a significant step in dismantling the Bush/Cheney view of executive unilateralism. It would be the smallest measure of justice to abandon this theory as ill founded and also to offer profound apologies and restitution to victims. It would be a public acknowledgment that our fears are never an excuse for anyone's suffering.

Torture is only one aspect of a larger distortion of the Constitution. Changing the executive's operating definitions of the law will be critical to rolling back the Bush/Cheney vision. Now this vision is largely memorialized in Justice Department opinions, many still secret. Some of them directly address presidential prerogatives to override laws. Others deal with specific constitutional rights, such as Fourth Amendment privacy rights and the freedom from indefinite detention without trial.

While there is not much general public pressure to change these positions, many constitutional scholars and advocacy groups have protested these opinions. Consistent pressure is required to ensure that the Obama Justice Department cleans house. All department opinions on executive power should be revealed, and troubling ones should be red-flagged so officials will know they can no longer rely on them. The Justice Department should then develop opinions that systematically repudiate the most offensive positions, in particular the idea of monarchical prerogatives to override the law.

Traditionally, opinions have been prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel in secret and then closely held within the administration. Given executive-branch lawyers' habitual pro-presidential tilt, this process should be refashioned. Not only should opinions be made public after publication; the OLC should invite comment and criticism from the public and scholars during drafting, much as other federal regulations are subject to pre-publication "notice and comment."

Finally, there is the thorny matter of accountability. Absent accountability, the lesson of the Bush/Cheney era would be that those who violate the law can, if brazen enough, get away with it. Yet the Obama transition team has signaled no appetite for criminal proceedings. And in any case, indictments might be pre-empted by a blanket pardon before January 20.

Many others have made a compelling case for prosecutions. But what if they don't happen? Paradoxically, blanket presidential pardons may be the least bad alternative. If prosecutions proceed, they may not be edifying. Admissible evidence will be sparse, given secrecy rules. Officials will protest at being sandbagged after having relied on (flawed) OLC opinions. And there is the danger of a repeat of the Iran/Contra trials, where Oliver North used the dock as a soapbox. Given these risks, a blanket pardon perversely might send the clearest signal that the malaise of the Bush/Cheney era was endemic.

Yet this is no reason to renounce accountability. Several commentators have urged a commission to establish full documentation of what was done and its legal justifications. An investigative commission could be less amenable to manipulation than trials. If it could carry out its work in a bipartisan spirit, while insisting on the investigative tools needed to cut through secrecy, such as subpoena power, it could establish a definitive historical record of Bush/Cheney's extraordinary power grab. Bringing to public scrutiny the imperial presidency's infractions will, I suspect, be as good a way as any of thoroughly discrediting that constitutional vision.

No one should assume that the end of the Bush presidency marks the end of the imperial presidency. The Obama administration faces a geostrategic environment of growing uncertainty, with treasury, reputation and military depleted by eight feckless years. It would be foolhardy simply to assume that the worst will be swept away. Yet the opportunities exist for progressives to insist that Obama stay true to his message of hope and his promise of restoring America's tarnished Constitution.

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