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Minutes before the President of the United States would tell the Congress how much he appreciates "responsible criticism and counsel," the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq was dragged from a gallery overlooking the House chamber where Bush would speak, handcuffed and arrested for the "crime" of wearing a T-shirt that read: "2245 Dead. How many more?"
Cindy Sheehan, who had been invited to attend George Bush's State of the Union address by Representative Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did not put the "dangerous" shirt on for the event. The woman whose protest last summer outside the President's ranchette in Crawford, Texas, drew international attention to the antiwar movement, had been wearing it at events earlier in the day.
Indeed, as Sheehan, who had passed through Capitol security monitors without incident, noted, "I knew that I couldn't disrupt the address because Lynn had given me the ticket and I didn't want to be disruptive out of respect for her."
No one has suggested that Sheehan was in any way disruptive.
So why was she arrested?
Because, as Sheehan recounts, she was identified as a dissident.
Before the arrest, media reports buzzed about official concern regarding Sheehan's presence. And, as she was being dragged from a room where the President would shortly extol the virtues of freedom and liberty, police explicitly told Sheehan that she was being removed "because you were protesting."
Capitol Police and other security officials, whose rough treatment of Sheehan was witnessed by dozens of people who attended the State of the Union event, said she was arrested for "unlawful conduct." Conveniently, she was held until after the President finished speaking.
Is there really a law against wearing a political T-shirt to the State of the Union address?
The Capitol Police, who on Wednesday dropped the charges against Sheehan, have acknowledged in an official statement that: "While officers acted in a manner consistent with the rules of decorum enforced by the department in the House Gallery for years, neither Mrs. Sheehan's manner of dress or initial conduct warranted law enforcement intervention."
What they have not acknowledged, and what is truly troubling, is the evidence that Sheehan was singled out for rough justice.
Beverly Young, the wife of Representative C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, showed for the State of the Union address up sporting a T-shirt that read, "Support the Troops--Defending Our Freedom." When Capitol Police asked her to leave the gallery because she was wearing clothing that featured a political message, Mrs. Young says, she argued loudly with officers and called one of them "an idiot."
But Mrs. Young was not handcuffed. She was not dragged from the Capitol. She was not arrested. She was not jailed.
Sheehan, who caused no ruckus, was arrested not because she engaged in "unlawful conduct." Rather, by every evidence, she was arrested because of what her T-shirt said--and, by extension, because of what she believes.
That makes this a most serious matter. Representative Pete Stark, the California Democrat who is one of the senior members of the House, is right when he says that Sheehan's arrest by officers he refers to as "the President's Gestapo," tells us a lot more about the George Bush and the sorry state of our basic liberties in the midst of the President's open-ended "war on terror" than anything that was said in the State of the Union address. "It shows he still has a thin skin," Stark says of the President who claims to welcome dissent.
It also shows that the father of the Constitution, James Madison, was right when he warned that, in times of war, the greatest danger to America would not be foreign foes but Presidents and their minions, who would abuse the powers of the executive branch with the purpose of "subduing the force of the people."
This one incident involving one T-shirt is a minor matter. But seen in the context of the mounting evidence of constraints on legitimate protest, warrantless wiretaps and the abuses of the Patriot Act, it reminds us of the the truth of Madison's warning that: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
The truly tragic thing about George W. Bush's fifth State of the Union address was the president's refusal to acknowledge that anyone might remember what was said in his previous speeches to Congress and the nation.
Three years ago, Bush laid out a vision for developing democracy in the Middle East that at least sounded relatively realistic. Echoing statements he had made during the 2000 presidential debate with Al Gore -- when he decried the doomed work of "nation building" -- the president admitted that elections in developing democracies might not turn out the way that his neoconservative "brain trust" had promised they would. And he seemed to be O.K. with that.
"Time after time," Bush warned, "observers have questioned whether this country, or the people, or this group, are 'ready' for democracy -- as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress."
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that the president did not begin to understand, let alone appreciate, the consequences and responsibilities inherent in those words.
Bush, a man whose awareness of the world and its complex politics was scant at the time of his election and who has learned little in the ensuing years, appears to have genuinely believed that if polling stations were set up, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians and others would elect the local equivalents of Bill Frist, Denny Hastert, George Allen and Jim Sensenbrenner. Maybe, in his worst nightmares, Bush imagined the prospect that a Palestinian Russ Feingold or an Iranian Howard Dean might prevail. But that would be as scary as his cloistered consciousness allowed things to get.
Then the voting began. And Bush found himself confronted with an Iranian government that seems to be interested in developing a nuclear deterrent to U.S. meddling in its affairs, an Iraqi government that has yet to embrace pluralism, an Egyptian government that maintains its hold on power by denying the most viable opposition party its place on the ballot and a Palestinian government led by a party with a campaign strategy that includes armed struggle.
Speaking last night after a series of elections where voters in fledgling democracies placed their faith in extremist parties that are unenthusiastic about "western standards of progress," Bush had a responsibility to at least attempt to reconcile the new realities created by the results of recent voting. He ranted against "radical Islam" but would not acknowledge its popular appeal. He said Middle East democracies must be allowed to reflect the values and ideals of Middle Easterners, but then proceeded to tell newly elected governments what they must do to meet his -- decidedly western -- standards.
The address raised more questions than it answered.
Does the president still believe that the United States should not act "as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress." If so, should he not take the appropriate, if politically and personally difficult step of accepting the choices of the Iranian and Palestinian peoples? And should he not decry moves in Iraq, Egypt and other countries to control and constrain the democratic experiment in a manner that denies the majority of citizens an opportunity to select the extremist government of their choice?
Or has the president's commitment to democracy been shaken by election results that were not to his liking?
Bush needed to resolve those contradictions last night with an honest discussion of recent developments.
Instead, he delivered an irrational address that maintained an almost childlike certainly in the prospect that, someday soon, voters in Gaza City, Tehran, Baghdad and Cairo will begin casting ballots according to the same "western standards of progress" as voters in Grand Rapids, Toledo, Baltimore and Carson City.
Everyone knows that Bush has trouble admitting his own mistakes. But how can he fail to recognize that his ungrounded idealism of the past -- as evidenced by last year's State of the Union address, in which the president declared that, "The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure" -- has crashed into the harsh reality of a Hamas win at the Palestinian polls?
Bush introduced the term "faith-based solutions" to American politics. Faith is appropriate at times. But when the unwelcome developments challenge assumptions, faith must be tempered with realism -- and perhaps even a measure of humility. Last night was the point at which Bush needed to get real. Instead, the president asked the American people to embrace his unresolved contradictions and to cling with him to increasingly dangerous delusions.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.
Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who has died at the age of 78, should be remembered for many brave and selfless deeds. Chief among those deeds, to be sure, was her steady opposition to capital punishment. The widow of one of America's most famous murder victims gave voice across four decades to the most credible argument with regard to the death penalty.
"As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder and assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses," she said. "An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder."
State of the Union addresses rarely add anything of value to the national discourse. Rather, they are campaign speeches dressed up as major statements of public policy.
Until the arrival of the current administration, however, State of the Union addresses usually did no harm.
That can no longer be said to be the case. Indeed, during the Bush years, these annual exercises in presidential pontification have actually detracted from the debate -- sometimes devastatingly so.
This president has used his yearly speeches to misstate intelligence data in order to deceive the Congress and the American people about supposed threats to national security, as Bush did in his 2003 address. And he has repeatedly used State of the Union addresses to foster the false impression that misnamed programs -- such as the so-called "Patriot" and "No Child Left Behind" acts -- are actually designed to protect and serve the American people.
Tonight, the president will deliver the second State of the Union address of a second term gone awry. His approval ratings are dismal. The majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. And there is a growing movement to censure Bush and Vice President Cheney for abusing their authority, disregarding the laws of the land and undermining Constitutional protections that were designed to preserve basic liberties.
It is the concern about the Bush administration's assaults on freedoms that are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights that ought to weigh heaviest on the president tonight.
Indeed, if there is any one statement that should to be featured in the president's address, it is a response to the demand of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, for an explanation of the thinking behind the administration's decision to illegally initiate a program of spying on U.S. citizens -- and to maintain that program even after it was exposed by the media and condemned by many in Congress.
"No Administration official who has publicly defended the NSA program in the last week, including the President, has explained why it is necessary to violate the law and the Constitution to effectively fight terrorism," notes Feingold, the steadiest defender of the Constitution in the current Congress. "Instead, the Administration has resorted to a public relations campaign, perhaps because it knows its legal arguments don't stand up. The American people deserve an explanation of why this Administration decided to violate the law and insists on continuing to do so."
Feingold's right. If the president fails to address the issue of warrantless wiretaps tonight, then he will be guilty of delivering another State of the Union address that hinders rather than encourages the honest dialogue that is essential to democracy.
No one runs for the U.S. Senate on the slogan: "Elect me and I will maintain the status quo."
No one runs for the U.S. Senate promising to go along to get along.
Yet, when push comes to shove, most senators end up as cautious players who choose the easy route of partisanship, ideological predictability and personal political advantage over the more dangerous path of adherence to the Constitution. Americans have grown so accustomed to the compromised nature of the chamber that they often forget that the founders of the American experiment intended the Senate, in particular, to serve as a check and a balance on the excesses of the executive branch.
Unfortunately, major media outlets that now serve as little more than a stenography service for the D.C. consensus regularly reinforce this misinterpretation of senatorial duty by painting members of the body who choose to embrace their Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities as, at best, eccentric or ambitious and, at worst, vindictive or dangerous to the healthy functioning of the body politic.
The move, led by Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, to block the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court with a filibuster is already being dismissed by White House aides, Republican operatives and their echo chamber in the media as a mad misadventure that exposes the Democrats as legislative anarchists bent on wrecking the smooth-functioning processes of the Senate. The Republican National Committee's Tracey Schmitt summed up the sentiment when she peddled the official line of the man who would be monarch, arguing that in George W. Bush's America the Senate's advice and consent responsibilities are no longer required.
"The judicial confirmation process, particularly one for the nation's highest court, should be insulated from such thoughtless bomb throwing..." Schmitt growled.
Samuel Alito has established himself, through his record as an appellate court judge and his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the consumate judicial activist. He seeks a place on the Supreme Court in order to advance his vision of an imperial presidency that does not obey the laws of the land or answer to the Congress. Alito is, by his own admission, intellectually and politically at odds with the intents of the founders, and with the Constitutional system of checks and balances that they established. He has gone so far as to advise past presidents on strategies for expanding executive power and, as a judge, he has erred on the side of even the most reckless abuses of executive authority.
As Jonathan Turley, the George Washington University law professor and Constitutional scholar, explained: "In my years as an academic and a litigator, I have rarely seen the equal of Alito's bias in favor of the government. To put it bluntly, when it comes to reviewing government abuse, Samuel Alito is an empty robe."
Turley put the Senate consideration of this nomination in context when he wrote that: "The Alito vote might prove to be the single most important decision on the future of our constitutional system for decades to come. While I generally defer to presidents in their choices for the court, Samuel Alito is the wrong nominee at the wrong time for this country."
Seen in the context of the threat that Alito poses, the use of the filibuster -- an entirely legitimate legislative tool -- to block Alito's nomination is not "bomb throwing." It is an appropriate and necessary embrace of duty by senators who recognize the entirety of their advice-and-consent mandate. Of course there will be political risks for those who back the filibuster. But senators do not swear allegiance to their political security; they swear it to a Constitution that requires them to hold the executive branch to account. In this moment, and in this circumstance, senators can only provide the necessary checks and balances by backing the filibuster.
After the 2004 presidential election in the United States, a lot of liberal Americans looked longingly to the north. Canada, the theory went, was a social democracy with a sane foreign policy and humane values that offered a genuine alternative to the right-wing hegemony that the U.S. was about to experience.
But, this week, U.S. television networks and newspapers declared: "Canadians Tilts Right" and "Conservatives Capture Canada."
As shorthand for the election results that saw Canada's Conservative party outpoll the governing Liberal Party for the first time since Ronald Reagan served in the White House, those headlines may be useful.
But the claim that Canada has lurched far to the right is anything but accurate.
Of course, that has not stopped conservative spin doctors in Washington, and their echo chamber in the U.S. media, from announcing that last Monday's election results from Canada represent a seismic shift to the right for the North American continent. David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, was peddling the line that Canadians had rejected "anti-Americanism" -- fostering the lie that the Liberals, who had worked closely with the U.S. government on issues ranging from the occupation of Afghanistan, in which Canada is a major player, to free trade, which the Liberals support, was somehow at war with the U.S. Equally disingenuous was Bob Morrison of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based group that opposes reproductive freedom and gay rights, who announced that: "We are glad to see that Canadians have values-voters too. We can be optimistic about the end of the social engineering as driven by the (Liberal) government."
U.S. conservatives, who can point to little in the way of positive political news from around the world these days, are entitled to their fantasies. But no thinking American should buy into them.
As is the case with most right-wing "analysis" coming out of Washington these days, the truth is a lot more complex than the right-wing spin doctors would have Americans believe.
In fact, the Canadian results ought to be read as a warning signal for U.S. Republicans.
* The Canadian election was held early because the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin had been rocked by a major corruption scandal, which involved the misuse of public funds to promote the government's position on issues involving the relationship between the province of Quebec and rest of the country. All of Canada's major opposition parties ran anti-corruption campaigns, and the first promise of the Conservatives was not a rightward shift in public policies, but rather the restoration of honest and accountable government. In the United States, where corruption scandals have shaken the Republican leadership in Congress -- forcing indicted House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to surrender his position of power -- Canada's vote-the-bums-out response to government wrongdoing ought to be heartening to progressives who would like to see a similar response in November to the corrupt practices of this country's governing party. The results from Canada indicate the power of a reform message. According to a poll conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 54 percent of Canadians who voted Conservative did so because they thought it was time for a change, while only 41 percent said they favored Conservative policies.
* In order to achieve viability in a country that has repeatedly rejected social-conservative policies, Conservative leader Stephen Harper radically restructured the message and the manifesto of his party. He deemphasized issues such as abortion and gay right, and promised to protect and improve popular social-welfare programs, including Canada's national health care system. As Arthur Cockfield, a well-regarded commentator of legal and political issues who teaches law at Queen's University, noted, "Stephen Harper has moved closer to the center of the political spectrum to broaden support for his party. With plans to help working families, promote access to day care, and bolster the public health-care system... Harper no longer proposes any truly radical changes, but has signalled that he plans to tackle a number of policy priorities that could benefit lower- and middle-income Canadians." In the days following the election, Harper moved quickly to assure Canadians that his Cabinet would include leading moderates, and that his policy agenda would reflect the promises he made during the campaign to govern from the middle rather than the right.
* Harper and the Conservatives kept U.S. conservatives at arms length. Harper repeatedly emphasized his independence from the Bush administration, and his differences with the American right, during the course of the campaign. And, according to reports published in a number of Canadian newspapers, Conservative activists asked U.S. conservative leaders not to cheer their campaign on. A headline in the Calgary Sun read: "SSH! U.S. conservatives asked to keep mum." A pre-election email circulated to conservative activists in the U.S. by right-wing firebrand Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation warned that, "Canadian voters have been led to believe that American conservatives are scary and if the Conservative party can be linked with us, they perhaps can diminish a Conservative victory."
* Even with their move to the center, the Conservatives did not win anything akin to a majority of the popular vote. Infact, the Conservatives won only 36 percent support. Almost two-thirds of Canadians cast their ballots for more left-wing alternatives. In democracies with proportional representation voting systems, which better represent the sentiments of the voters, the Conservatives would not be in a position to form a government. Because Canada, like the U.S., maintrains a single-district, "first-past-the-post" voting system, the Conservatives prevailed over a divided opposition. But Canada has a multi-party political system at the federal level; the U.S. does not. If only 36 percent of American voters back conservative Republicans this fall, Democrats will dominate Congress more thoroughly than they have at any time since the Watergate era and perhaps since New Deal Days.
* The Conservatives did not win a governing majority. Of the 308 seats in the Canadian Parliament, the Conservatives will hold only 124. The remainder will be held by Liberals, with 103; the social democratic Bloc Québécois, which is the dominant party in the province of Quebec, with 51; and the social democratic New Democrats (NDP), with 29. An independent from Quebec holds the final seat. Thus, a Conservative government will have to rely on parties of the left to get anything done. A Toronto Star analysis provides the honest assessment that, "This precarious situation raises real questions about which of the Conservative policy priorities... could realistically get through the Commons... That leads to the bigger question too of how long this government could last and when another election could be unleashed on the country."
* Two parties made sighificant gains in Monday's voting: the Conservatives and the New Democrats. While the Conservatives increased the size of their parliamentary delegation by around 25 percent, the New Democrats increased the size of their delegation by more than 33 percent. In fact, for the first time in years, the New Democrats won more seats in the western province of British Columbia than the Liberals, and the NDP made significant inroads in urban centers such as Toronto. Even though they were operating in a political system that tends to drive voters toward the larger parties, the New Democrats dramatically improved their position by running as an explicitly anti-war, anti-corporate free trade and anti-corruption party. NDP leader Jack Layton explained after the election, in which his party achieved its best showing in decades, that: "While Canadians asked Stephen Harper to form a minority government, they also asked the NDP to balance that government."
The bottom line is this: Canadians have chosen to remove a scandal-plagued government that went by the name of "Liberal." But they only did so because the "Conservatives" promised not to be too conservative. And they voted in a team of left-wing watchdogs to assure that those promises are kept. If that gives U.S. conservatives some small measure of comfort, so be it. But U.S. progressives need not be traumatized by these results. Indeed, they can look forward to the day when voters in their country might choose to throw out a scandal-plagued government that goes by the name "conservative."
John Nichols began covering Canadian politics in 1984, and has regularly reported since then on national and provincial elections for U.S. newspapers and magazines. His articles comparing U.S. and Canadian politics have appeared in a number of Canadian publications.
In their new book, Tragedy and Farce John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, two of the country's foremost media analysts and founders of the national media reform group Free Press, dissect the troubling trends in journalism that surfaced in 2004--the decline in resources and standards for political journalism and the organized campaign by the political right to control the news cycle. They show how government decisions made without the informed consent of the American people have led to a media system that undermines democracy. Click here for info on the book, including how to order copies online.
Not to be lost in the reporting on Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee vote to endorse the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to serve on the Supreme Court is the fact that U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, has voted for the first time in his Senate career against a Supreme Court nominee.
More than any other vote by a member of the committee -- which split 10-8 along partisan lines, with all Republicans backing Alito and all Democrats opposing his nomination -- Feingold's vote stands out.
While the seven other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee had all voted against one or more Republican nominees for the high court, Feingold had, until Tuesday, voted to confirm every Supreme Court nominee, Republican or Democrat, to come before the panel.
This break in pattern by the man who is arguably the Senate's most adventurous thinker and independent player ought to serve as a basis for rethinking strategies with regard to blocking the nomination as it now moves to the full Senate -- up to and including the prospect of a filibuster.
Simply put, if Alito is unacceptable to Feingold, then he should be unacceptable to a good many other senators -- including moderate Republicans with whom Feingold has worked closely on campaign finance reform and a host of other issues over the years, such as Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee.
Why give this special status to Feingold? Because, since his arrival in the Senate in 1993, he has distinguished himself by his consistent if often controversial approach to presidential nominations.
The senator from Wisconsin has a record of supporting disputed Republican picks for top posts -- including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts -- because of his belief that presidents should be afforded broad leeway when it comes to making appointments. A progressive who is perhaps best known for casting the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, Feingold has long argued that Democrats must support the qualified conservative nominees of Republican presidents if they expect Republicans to support the qualified liberal nominees of Democratic presidents.
Feingold's standard has often infuriated liberal interest groups, along with many of his fellow Democrats, who have argued that he has given too much slack to right-wing Republicans who will never repay the favor. Why, the common question goes, does a progressive Democrat give conservative Republicans a blank check?
But Feingold has always rejected the "blank-check" analogy. The senator has voted against a number of federal appeals court nominees in recent years, and he has consistently made it clear that would oppose a Supreme Court nominee in an instance where a president selected someone who was too extreme, too biased or too ethically challenged.
The fact that Alito is the first high court nominee to fail to meet the Feingold standard is significant. And, as the senator explained to the committee Tuesday, it was not a close call.
In an unusually blunt statement, Feingold went out of his way to distinguish the current nominee from the Republican who he backed just a few months ago to serve as the court's chief justice. "Judge Alito's record and testimony do not give me the same comfort I had with Chief Justice Roberts," said Feingold, who explained that, "Judge Alito's record and his testimony have led me to conclude that his impulse to defer to the executive branch would make him a dangerous addition to the Supreme Court at a time when cases involving executive overreaching in the name of fighting terrorism are likely to be such an important part of the Court's work."
The three-term senator from Wisconsin who is being boomed as a potential progressive candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination pointed out that, on this most vital of issues, Alito's record ought to be troubling to anyone -- no matter what their partisan label -- who respects the system of checks and balances that is outlined in the Constitution and that has served as a bullwark of American liberty over the past 218 years.
"Judge Alito has an impressive background and a very capable legal mind, but I have grave concerns about how he would rule on cases involving the application of the Bill of Rights in a time of war. Some of the most important cases that the Supreme Court will consider in the coming years will involve the government's conduct of the fight against terrorism. It is critical that we have a strong and independent Supreme Court to evaluate these issues and to safeguard the rights and freedoms of Americans in the face of enormous pressures," explained Feingold.
"Confronted with an executive branch that has jealously claimed every possible authority that it can, and then some, the Supreme Court must continue to assert its constitutional role as a critical check on executive power. Just how "critical" that check is has been made clear over the past few weeks, as Americans have learned that the President thinks his executive power permits him to violate explicit criminal statutes by spying on Americans without a court order," Feingold continued. "With the executive and the legislature at loggerheads, we may well need the Supreme Court to have the final word in this matter. In times of constitutional crisis, the Supreme Court can tell the executive it has gone too far, and require it to obey the law. Yet Judge Alito's record and testimony strongly suggest that he would do what he has done for much of his 15 years on the bench: defer to the executive branch in case after case at the expense of individual rights."
While Judge Sam Alito's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee has confirmed that he is not one of their number, a dwindling cadre of public servants still take seriously the dictates of the Constitution and the intents of it authors. And there is no more serious dictate of the document -- and no more solidly established intent -- than the one that requires the Congress to serve as a check and a balance against the excesses of the executive branch. Most particularly in a time of war, the founders intended for the Congress to question, challenge and constrain the president and his aides so that never again would Americans be subjected to the illegitimate, unwarranted and illegal dictates of a King George.
This mandate, so well-established and so thoroughly grounded in history and tradition, places a particularly high demand on the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It is in the House, the Constitution tells us, that the work of holding an out-of-control president to account, must begin -- and it is on the Judiciary Committee that the process is initiated.
The committee's current chair, Representative James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, should understand this charge better than most. After all, he was at the center of the effort in 1998 and 1999 to impeach former President Bill Clinton.
No matter what one thought of the Clinton impeachment process, it should now be beyond debate that if the misdeeds of the former president required both examination and action by the Judiciary Committee -- as Sensenbrenner so obvioualy believed-- then the misdeeds of the current president must surely merit a similar response.
The memory of the Clinton impeachment has already inspired the most delicious sloganeering, beginning with the t-shirt that declares: "Impeachment: It's Not Just for Oral Sex Anymore." But this is about more than t-shirts and fingerpointing. As the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sensenbrenner has a Constitutionally-mandated responsibility to take seriously the charges of executive lawbreaking and impropriety that are currently in play. If he cannot execute this responsibility in a reasoned and bipartisan manner, then he has a duty to step aside.
That is a serious choice. But, surely, the issues that are at stake demand such seriousness -- as the American people have clearly indicated. A new Zogby Poll shows that 52 percent of Americas believe that, if George Bush violated the law when he ordered security agencies to engage in warrantless wiretaps on the communications of U.S. citizens who were accused of no crimes, the president should be impeached. So widespread is this faith that almost one quarter of those who identified themselves as "very conservative" expressed support for impeachment as a response to the spying scandal.
So far, however, Sensenbrenner has allowed his partisanship to prevent him from even beginning to execute his Constitutional duties.When Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee demanded that the body conduct an inquiry into illegal spying by the Bush administration, Sensenbrenner refused them.
Because of the consequence of the issues involved, Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee, convened an extraordinary session last week without the official sanction that only the committee chairman can convey.
"Last month all 17 House Judiciary Democrats called on Chairman Sensenbrenner to convene hearings to investigate the President's use of the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance involving U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, in apparent contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As our request has since been ignored, it is our job, as Members of Congress, to review the program and consider whether our criminal laws have been violated and our citizen's constitutional rights trampled upon," explained Conyers, who has played a critical role in investigations of wrongdoing by Democratic and Republican presidents since the days when Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House. "We simply cannot tolerate a situation where the Administration is operating as prosecutor, judge and jury and excluding Congress and the courts from providing any meaningful check or balance to the process."
Members of Congress who attended the hearing -- Conyers and a half dozen other Democrats -- heard George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley refer to the wiretapping ordered by Bush as ''an intelligence operation in search of a legal rationale."Without a doubt, Turley added, ''What the president ordered in this case was a crime," said Turley, who bluntly told the gathering that Sensenbrenner and other House Republicans have set a dangerous precedent by refusing to permit oversight hearings.
Turley's comments on the troubling nature of the president's wiretapping initiative -- and the failure of House Republicans to aggressively investigate and challenge that initiative -- were echoed by Bruce Fein, who served as a deputy Attorney General for the Reagan administration. In addition to suggesting that the implausibility of Bush's claim that he was acting within the law should be self evident, Fein warned presidential powers must always be regulated in order to halt abuses of the moment and to prevent the development over time of an imperial presidency that can no longer be checked by Congress.
The Conyers hearing had an impact on the members who bothered to attend it. Representative Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's panel on the Constitution, responded to the testimony by announcing that the Judiciary Committee needs to explore whether President Bush should be the subject of an impeachment inquiry for high crimes and misdemeanors stemming from his authorization of illegal spying.
Sensenbrenner might well disagree with that assessment. He has every right to such a sentiment. But he does not have a right to prevent the Judiciary Committee as a whole from entertaining these most fundamental questions about the abuse of presidential power. If Sensenbrenner does not recognize this standard, then he has no place chairing the committee that is charged with taking the lead in the application of Congressional checks and balances -- up to and including impeachment -- as an antidote to executive excess.
Al Gore did not use the "I" word. But the former vice president did use his Martin Luther King Day speech in Washington to declare that: "A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government." And he went on to say that, in year five of the Bush-Cheney interregnum, "America's Constitution is in grave danger."
Monday's much-anticipated speech by the man who won the popular count in the 2000 presidential election by more than 500,000 votes opened with the assertion that "the American values we hold most dear have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the Administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power."
While Gore stopped short of echoing the call by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, for the censure of George Bush and Dick Cheney -- and for an exploration of whether the misdeeds of the president and vice president merit impeachment -- the former member of the U.S. House and Senate did declare that the time has come for Congress to hold this administration to account.
"I call upon Democratic and Republican members of Congress today to uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of government you're supposed to be," Gore told a cheering crowd at the historic Constitution Hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The former vice president left little doubt regarding the proper response to Bush administration assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law. "We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens' right not only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Gore explained in his remarks to an event organized by the the bipartisan Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. "It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the part of the Executive Branch and the President's apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law."
Gore's remarks have already created a firestorm on the right, with the Republican National Committee decrying the speech as a diatribe "laden with inaccuracies and anger."
But don't settle for the RNC spin, nor for that of its media acolytes.
Gore's speech, while surely controversial, contained a dramatic and significant critique not merely of the Bush administration's wrongdoing but of the failure of Congress and major media to expose and challenge abuses of power.
What was said in Washington on Monday mattered. Indeed, it mattered so much that the the spin machine of the president's party is hard at work seeking to mischaracterize the former vice president's remarks -- remarks that bluntly criticized both Republicans and Democrats.
Here is a transcript of what Al Gore had to say:
As we begin this new year, the Executive Branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses.
It is imperative that respect for the rule of law be restored.
So, many of us have come here to Constitution Hall to sound an alarm and call upon our fellow citizens to put aside partisan differences and join with us in demanding that our Constitution be defended and preserved.
It is appropriate that we make this appeal on the day our nation has set aside to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who challenged America to breathe new life into our oldest values by extending its promise to all our people.
On this particular Martin Luther King Day, it is especially important to recall that for the last several years of his life, Dr. King was illegally wiretapped - one of hundreds of thousands of Americans whose private communications were intercepted by the U.S. government during this period.
The FBI privately called King the "most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country" and vowed to "take him off his pedestal." The government even attempted to destroy his marriage and blackmail him into committing suicide.
This campaign continued until Dr. King's murder. The discovery that the FBI conducted a long-running and extensive campaign of secret electronic surveillance designed to infiltrate the inner workings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to learn the most intimate details of Dr. King's life, helped to convince Congress to enact restrictions on wiretapping.
The result was the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), which was enacted expressly to ensure that foreign intelligence surveillance would be presented to an impartial judge to verify that there is a sufficient cause for the surveillance. I voted for that law during my first term in Congress and for almost thirty years the system has proven a workable and valued means of according a level of protection for private citizens, while permitting foreign surveillance to continue.
Yet, just one month ago, Americans awoke to the shocking news that in spite of this long settled law, the Executive Branch has been secretly spying on large numbers of Americans for the last four years and eavesdropping on "large volumes of telephone calls, e-mail messages, and other Internet traffic inside the United States." The New York Times reported that the President decided to launch this massive eavesdropping program "without search warrants or any new laws that would permit such domestic intelligence collection."
During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the President went out of his way to reassure the American people on more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is required for any government spying on American citizens and that, of course, these constitutional safeguards were still in place.
But surprisingly, the President's soothing statements turned out to be false. Moreover, as soon as this massive domestic spying program was uncovered by the press, the President not only confirmed that the story was true, but also declared that he has no intention of bringing these wholesale invasions of privacy to an end.
At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA's domestic surveillance. What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the President of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently.
A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government. Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they had established a government of laws and not men. Indeed, they recognized that the structure of government they had enshrined in our Constitution - our system of checks and balances - was designed with a central purpose of ensuring that it would govern through the rule of law. As John Adams said: "The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men."
An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution - an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet, "On Common Sense" ignited the American Revolution, succinctly described America's alternative. Here, he said, we intended to make certain that "the law is king."
Vigilant adherence to the rule of law strengthens our democracy and strengthens America. It ensures that those who govern us operate within our constitutional structure, which means that our democratic institutions play their indispensable role in shaping policy and determining the direction of our nation. It means that the people of this nation ultimately determine its course and not executive officials operating in secret without constraint.
The rule of law makes us stronger by ensuring that decisions will be tested, studied, reviewed and examined through the processes of government that are designed to improve policy. And the knowledge that they will be reviewed prevents over-reaching and checks the accretion of power.
A commitment to openness, truthfulness and accountability also helps our country avoid many serious mistakes. Recently, for example, we learned from recently classified declassified documents that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the tragic Vietnam war, was actually based on false information. We now know that the decision by Congress to authorize the Iraq War, 38 years later, was also based on false information. America would have been better off knowing the truth and avoiding both of these colossal mistakes in our history. Following the rule of law makes us safer, not more vulnerable.
The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is all too real. There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attack on September 11th and that we must be ever-vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.
Where we disagree is that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government to protect Americans from terrorism. In fact, doing so makes us weaker and more vulnerable.
Once violated, the rule of law is in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.
The President's men have minced words about America's laws. The Attorney General openly conceded that the "kind of surveillance" we now know they have been conducting requires a court order unless authorized by statute. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act self-evidently does not authorize what the NSA has been doing, and no one inside or outside the Administration claims that it does. Incredibly, the Administration claims instead that the surveillance was implicitly authorized when Congress voted to use force against those who attacked us on September 11th.
This argument just does not hold any water. Without getting into the legal intricacies, it faces a number of embarrassing facts. First, another admission by the Attorney General: he concedes that the Administration knew that the NSA project was prohibited by existing law and that they consulted with some members of Congress about changing the statute. Gonzalez says that they were told this probably would not be possible. So how can they now argue that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force somehow implicitly authorized it all along? Second, when the Authorization was being debated, the Administration did in fact seek to have language inserted in it that would have authorized them to use military force domestically - and the Congress did not agree. Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Jim McGovern, among others, made statements during the Authorization debate clearly restating that that Authorization did not operate domestically.
When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him all the power he wanted when they passed the AUMF, he secretly assumed that power anyway, as if congressional authorization was a useless bother. But as Justice Frankfurter once wrote: "To find authority so explicitly withheld is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between President and Congress."
This is precisely the "disrespect" for the law that the Supreme Court struck down in the steel seizure case.
It is this same disrespect for America's Constitution which has now brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric of the Constitution. And the disrespect embodied in these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political parties.
For example, the President has also declared that he has a heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our nation, and that, notwithstanding his American citizenship, the person imprisoned has no right to talk with a lawyer - even to argue that the President or his appointees have made a mistake and imprisoned the wrong person.
The President claims that he can imprison American citizens indefinitely for the rest of their lives without an arrest warrant, without notifying them about what charges have been filed against them, and without informing their families that they have been imprisoned.
At the same time, the Executive Branch has claimed a previously unrecognized authority to mistreat prisoners in its custody in ways that plainly constitute torture in a pattern that has now been documented in U.S. facilities located in several countries around the world.
Over 100 of these captives have reportedly died while being tortured by Executive Branch interrogators and many more have been broken and humiliated. In the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, investigators who documented the pattern of torture estimated that more than 90 percent of the victims were innocent of any charges.
This shameful exercise of power overturns a set of principles that our nation has observed since General Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War and has been observed by every president since then - until now. These practices violate the Geneva Conventions and the International Convention Against Torture, not to mention our own laws against torture.
The President has also claimed that he has the authority to kidnap individuals in foreign countries and deliver them for imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes in nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for torture.
Some of our traditional allies have been shocked by these new practices on the part of our nation. The British Ambassador to Uzbekistan - one of those nations with the worst reputations for torture in its prisons - registered a complaint to his home office about the senselessness and cruelty of the new U.S. practice: "This material is useless - we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful."
Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is "yes" then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?
The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing the Executive Branch's claims of these previously unrecognized powers: "If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution."
The fact that our normal safeguards have thus far failed to contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power is deeply troubling. This failure is due in part to the fact that the Executive Branch has followed a determined strategy of obfuscating, delaying, withholding information, appearing to yield but then refusing to do so and dissembling in order to frustrate the efforts of the legislative and judicial branches to restore our constitutional balance.
For example, after appearing to support legislation sponsored by John McCain to stop the continuation of torture, the President declared in the act of signing the bill that he reserved the right not to comply with it.
Similarly, the Executive Branch claimed that it could unilaterally imprison American citizens without giving them access to review by any tribunal. The Supreme Court disagreed, but the President engaged in legal maneuvers designed to prevent the Court from providing meaningful content to the rights of its citizens.
A conservative jurist on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the Executive Branch's handling of one such case seemed to involve the sudden abandonment of principle "at substantial cost to the government's credibility before the courts."
As a result of its unprecedented claim of new unilateral power, the Executive Branch has now put our constitutional design at grave risk. The stakes for America's representative democracy are far higher than has been generally recognized.
These claims must be rejected and a healthy balance of power restored to our Republic. Otherwise, the fundamental nature of our democracy may well undergo a radical transformation.
For more than two centuries, America's freedoms have been preserved in part by our founders' wise decision to separate the aggregate power of our government into three co-equal branches, each of which serves to check and balance the power of the other two.
On more than a few occasions, the dynamic interaction among all three branches has resulted in collisions and temporary impasses that create what are invariably labeled "constitutional crises." These crises have often been dangerous and uncertain times for our Republic. But in each such case so far, we have found a resolution of the crisis by renewing our common agreement to live under the rule of law.
The principle alternative to democracy throughout history has been the consolidation of virtually all state power in the hands of a single strongman or small group who together exercise that power without the informed consent of the governed.
It was in revolt against just such a regime, after all, that America was founded. When Lincoln declared at the time of our greatest crisis that the ultimate question being decided in the Civil War was "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure," he was not only saving our union but also was recognizing the fact that democracies are rare in history. And when they fail, as did Athens and the Roman Republic upon whose designs our founders drew heavily, what emerges in their place is another strongman regime.
There have of course been other periods of American history when the Executive Branch claimed new powers that were later seen as excessive and mistaken. Our second president, John Adams, passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts and sought to silence and imprison critics and political opponents.
When his successor, Thomas Jefferson, eliminated the abuses he said: "[The essential principles of our Government] form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation ... [S]hould we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety."
Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Some of the worst abuses prior to those of the current administration were committed by President Wilson during and after WWI with the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids. The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII marked a low point for the respect of individual rights at the hands of the executive. And, during the Vietnam War, the notorious COINTELPRO program was part and parcel of the abuses experienced by Dr. King and thousands of others.
But in each of these cases, when the conflict and turmoil subsided, the country recovered its equilibrium and absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.
There are reasons for concern this time around that conditions may be changing and that the cycle may not repeat itself. For one thing, we have for decades been witnessing the slow and steady accumulation of presidential power. In a global environment of nuclear weapons and cold war tensions, Congress and the American people accepted ever enlarging spheres of presidential initiative to conduct intelligence and counter intelligence activities and to allocate our military forces on the global stage. When military force has been used as an instrument of foreign policy or in response to humanitarian demands, it has almost always been as the result of presidential initiative and leadership. As Justice Frankfurter wrote in the Steel Seizure Case, "The accretion of dangerous power does not come in a day. It does come, however slowly, from the generative force of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in even the most disinterested assertion of authority."
A second reason to believe we may be experiencing something new is that we are told by the Administration that the war footing upon which he has tried to place the country is going to "last for the rest of our lives." So we are told that the conditions of national threat that have been used by other Presidents to justify arrogations of power will persist in near perpetuity.
Third, we need to be aware of the advances in eavesdropping and surveillance technologies with their capacity to sweep up and analyze enormous quantities of information and to mine it for intelligence. This adds significant vulnerability to the privacy and freedom of enormous numbers of innocent people at the same time as the potential power of those technologies. These techologies have the potential for shifting the balance of power between the apparatus of the state and the freedom of the individual in ways both subtle and profound.
Don't misunderstand me: the threat of additional terror strikes is all too real and their concerted efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction does create a real imperative to exercise the powers of the Executive Branch with swiftness and agility. Moreover, there is in fact an inherent power that is conferred by the Constitution to the President to take unilateral action to protect the nation from a sudden and immediate threat, but it is simply not possible to precisely define in legalistic terms exactly when that power is appropriate and when it is not.
But the existence of that inherent power cannot be used to justify a gross and excessive power grab lasting for years that produces a serious imbalance in the relationship between the executive and the other two branches of government.
There is a final reason to worry that we may be experiencing something more than just another cycle of overreach and regret. This Administration has come to power in the thrall of a legal theory that aims to convince us that this excessive concentration of presidential authority is exactly what our Constitution intended.
This legal theory, which its proponents call the theory of the unitary executive but which is more accurately described as the unilateral executive, threatens to expand the president's powers until the contours of the constitution that the Framers actually gave us become obliterated beyond all recognition. Under this theory, the President's authority when acting as Commander-in-Chief or when making foreign policy cannot be reviewed by the judiciary or checked by Congress. President Bush has pushed the implications of this idea to its maximum by continually stressing his role as Commander-in-Chief, invoking it has frequently as he can, conflating it with his other roles, domestic and foreign. When added to the idea that we have entered a perpetual state of war, the implications of this theory stretch quite literally as far into the future as we can imagine.
This effort to rework America's carefully balanced constitutional design into a lopsided structure dominated by an all powerful Executive Branch with a subservient Congress and judiciary is - ironically - accompanied by an effort by the same administration to rework America's foreign policy from one that is based primarily on U.S. moral authority into one that is based on a misguided and self-defeating effort to establish dominance in the world.
The common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control.
This same pattern has characterized the effort to silence dissenting views within the Executive Branch, to censor information that may be inconsistent with its stated ideological goals, and to demand conformity from all Executive Branch employees.
For example, CIA analysts who strongly disagreed with the White House assertion that Osama bin Laden was linked to Saddam Hussein found themselves under pressure at work and became fearful of losing promotions and salary increases.
Ironically, that is exactly what happened to FBI officials in the 1960s who disagreed with J. Edgar Hoover's view that Dr. King was closely connected to Communists. The head of the FBI's domestic intelligence division said that his effort to tell the truth about King's innocence of the charge resulted in he and his colleagues becoming isolated and pressured. "It was evident that we had to change our ways or we would all be out on the street... The men and I discussed how to get out of trouble. To be in trouble with Mr. Hoover was a serious matter. These men were trying to buy homes, mortgages on homes, children in school. They lived in fear of getting transferred, losing money on their homes, as they usually did. ... so they wanted another memorandum written to get us out of the trouble that we were in."
The Constitution's framers understood this dilemma as well, as Alexander Hamilton put it, "a power over a man's support is a power over his will." (Federalist No. 73)
Soon, there was no more difference of opinion within the FBI. The false accusation became the unanimous view. In exactly the same way, George Tenet's CIA eventually joined in endorsing a manifestly false view that there was a linkage between al Qaeda and the government of Iraq.
In the words of George Orwell: "We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."
Whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable it almost inevitably leads to mistakes and abuses. In the absence of rigorous accountability, incompetence flourishes. Dishonesty is encouraged and rewarded.
Last week, for example, Vice President Cheney attempted to defend the Administration's eavesdropping on American citizens by saying that if it had conducted this program prior to 9/11, they would have found out the names of some of the hijackers.
Tragically, he apparently still doesn't know that the Administration did in fact have the names of at least 2 of the hijackers well before 9/11 and had available to them information that could have easily led to the identification of most of the other hijackers. And yet, because of incompetence in the handling of this information, it was never used to protect the American people.
It is often the case that an Executive Branch beguiled by the pursuit of unchecked power responds to its own mistakes by reflexively proposing that it be given still more power. Often, the request itself it used to mask accountability for mistakes in the use of power it already has.
Moreover, if the pattern of practice begun by this Administration is not challenged, it may well become a permanent part of the American system. Many conservatives have pointed out that granting unchecked power to this President means that the next President will have unchecked power as well. And the next President may be someone whose values and belief you do not trust. And this is why Republicans as well as Democrats should be concerned with what this President has done. If this President's attempt to dramatically expand executive power goes unquestioned, our constitutional design of checks and balances will be lost. And the next President or some future President will be able, in the name of national security, to restrict our liberties in a way the framers never would have thought possible.
The same instinct to expand its power and to establish dominance characterizes the relationship between this Administration and the courts and the Congress.
In a properly functioning system, the Judicial Branch would serve as the constitutional umpire to ensure that the branches of government observed their proper spheres of authority, observed civil liberties and adhered to the rule of law. Unfortunately, the unilateral executive has tried hard to thwart the ability of the judiciary to call balls and strikes by keeping controversies out of its hands - notably those challenging its ability to detain individuals without legal process - by appointing judges who will be deferential to its exercise of power and by its support of assaults on the independence of the third branch.
The President's decision to ignore FISA was a direct assault on the power of the judges who sit on that court. Congress established the FISA court precisely to be a check on executive power to wiretap. Yet, to ensure that the court could not function as a check on executive power, the President simply did not take matters to it and did not let the court know that it was being bypassed.
The President's judicial appointments are clearly designed to ensure that the courts will not serve as an effective check on executive power. As we have all learned, Judge Alito is a longtime supporter of a powerful executive - a supporter of the so-called unitary executive, which is more properly called the unilateral executive. Whether you support his confirmation or not - and I do not - we must all agree that he will not vote as an effective check on the expansion of executive power. Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts has made plain his deference to the expansion of executive power through his support of judicial deference to executive agency rulemaking.
And the Administration has supported the assault on judicial independence that has been conducted largely in Congress. That assault includes a threat by the Republican majority in the Senate to permanently change the rules to eliminate the right of the minority to engage in extended debate of the President's judicial nominees. The assault has extended to legislative efforts to curtail the jurisdiction of courts in matters ranging from habeas corpus to the pledge of allegiance. In short, the Administration has demonstrated its contempt for the judicial role and sought to evade judicial review of its actions at every turn.
But the most serious damage has been done to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the Executive Branch to attain a massive expansion of its power.
I was elected to Congress in 1976 and served eight years in the house, 8 years in the Senate and presided over the Senate for 8 years as Vice President. As a young man, I saw the Congress first hand as the son of a Senator. My father was elected to Congress in 1938, 10 years before I was born, and left the Senate in 1971.
The Congress we have today is unrecognizable compared to the one in which my father served. There are many distinguished Senators and Congressmen serving today. I am honored that some of them are here in this hall. But the legislative branch of government under its current leadership now operates as if it is entirely subservient to the Executive Branch.
Moreover, too many Members of the House and Senate now feel compelled to spend a majority of their time not in thoughtful debate of the issues, but raising money to purchase 30 second TV commercials.
There have now been two or three generations of congressmen who don't really know what an oversight hearing is. In the 70's and 80's, the oversight hearings in which my colleagues and I participated held the feet of the Executive Branch to the fire - no matter which party was in power. Yet oversight is almost unknown in the Congress today.
The role of authorization committees has declined into insignificance. The 13 annual appropriation bills are hardly ever actually passed anymore. Everything is lumped into a single giant measure that is not even available for Members of Congress to read before they vote on it.
Members of the minority party are now routinely excluded from conference committees, and amendments are routinely not allowed during floor consideration of legislation.
In the United States Senate, which used to pride itself on being the "greatest deliberative body in the world," meaningful debate is now a rarity. Even on the eve of the fateful vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd famously asked: "Why is this chamber empty?"
In the House of Representatives, the number who face a genuinely competitive election contest every two years is typically less than a dozen out of 435.
And too many incumbents have come to believe that the key to continued access to the money for re-election is to stay on the good side of those who have the money to give; and, in the case of the majority party, the whole process is largely controlled by the incumbent president and his political organization.
So the willingness of Congress to challenge the Administration is further limited when the same party controls both Congress and the Executive Branch.
The Executive Branch, time and again, has co-opted Congress' role, and often Congress has been a willing accomplice in the surrender of its own power.
Look for example at the Congressional role in "overseeing" this massive four year eavesdropping campaign that on its face seemed so clearly to violate the Bill of Rights. The President says he informed Congress, but what he really means is that he talked with the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the top leaders of the House and Senate. This small group, in turn, claimed that they were not given the full facts, though at least one of the intelligence committee leaders handwrote a letter of concern to VP Cheney and placed a copy in his own safe.
Though I sympathize with the awkward position in which these men and women were placed, I cannot disagree with the Liberty Coalition when it says that Democrats as well as Republicans in the Congress must share the blame for not taking action to protest and seek to prevent what they consider a grossly unconstitutional program.
Moreover, in the Congress as a whole - both House and Senate - the enhanced role of money in the re-election process, coupled with the sharply diminished role for reasoned deliberation and debate, has produced an atmosphere conducive to pervasive institutionalized corruption.
The Abramoff scandal is but the tip of a giant iceberg that threatens the integrity of the entire legislative branch of government.
It is the pitiful state of our legislative branch which primarily explains the failure of our vaunted checks and balances to prevent the dangerous overreach by our Executive Branch which now threatens a radical transformation of the American system.
I call upon Democratic and Republican members of Congress today to uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of government you're supposed to be.
But there is yet another Constitutional player whose pulse must be taken and whose role must be examined in order to understand the dangerous imbalance that has emerged with the efforts by the Executive Branch to dominate our constitutional system.
We the people are - collectively - still the key to the survival of America's democracy. We - as Lincoln put it, "[e]ven we here" - must examine our own role as citizens in allowing and not preventing the shocking decay and degradation of our democracy.
Thomas Jefferson said: "An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will."
The revolutionary departure on which the idea of America was based was the audacious belief that people can govern themselves and responsibly exercise the ultimate authority in self-government. This insight proceeded inevitably from the bedrock principle articulated by the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke: "All just power is derived from the consent of the governed."
The intricate and carefully balanced constitutional system that is now in such danger was created with the full and widespread participation of the population as a whole. The Federalist Papers were, back in the day, widely-read newspaper essays, and they represented only one of twenty-four series of essays that crowded the vibrant marketplace of ideas in which farmers and shopkeepers recapitulated the debates that played out so fruitfully in Philadelphia.
Indeed, when the Convention had done its best, it was the people - in their various States - that refused to confirm the result until, at their insistence, the Bill of Rights was made integral to the document sent forward for ratification.
And it is "We the people" who must now find once again the ability we once had to play an integral role in saving our Constitution.
And here there is cause for both concern and great hope. The age of printed pamphlets and political essays has long since been replaced by television - a distracting and absorbing medium which sees determined to entertain and sell more than it informs and educates.
Lincoln's memorable call during the Civil War is applicable in a new way to our dilemma today: "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
Forty years have passed since the majority of Americans adopted television as their principal source of information. Its dominance has become so extensive that virtually all significant political communication now takes place within the confines of flickering 30-second television advertisements.
And the political economy supported by these short but expensive television ads is as different from the vibrant politics of America's first century as those politics were different from the feudalism which thrived on the ignorance of the masses of people in the Dark Ages.
The constricted role of ideas in the American political system today has encouraged efforts by the Executive Branch to control the flow of information as a means of controlling the outcome of important decisions that still lie in the hands of the people.
The Administration vigorously asserts its power to maintain the secrecy of its operations. After all, the other branches can't check an abuse of power if they don't know it is happening.
For example, when the Administration was attempting to persuade Congress to enact the Medicare prescription drug benefit, many in the House and Senate raised concerns about the cost and design of the program. But, rather than engaging in open debate on the basis of factual data, the Administration withheld facts and prevented the Congress from hearing testimony that it sought from the principal administration expert who had compiled information showing in advance of the vote that indeed the true cost estimates were far higher than the numbers given to Congress by the President.
Deprived of that information, and believing the false numbers given to it instead, the Congress approved the program. Tragically, the entire initiative is now collapsing - all over the country - with the Administration making an appeal just this weekend to major insurance companies to volunteer to bail it out.
To take another example, scientific warnings about the catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming were censored by a political appointee in the White House who had no scientific training. And today one of the leading scientific experts on global warming in NASA has been ordered not to talk to members of the press and to keep a careful log of everyone he meets with so that the Executive Branch can monitor and control his discussions of global warming.
One of the other ways the Administration has tried to control the flow of information is by consistently resorting to the language and politics of fear in order to short-circuit the debate and drive its agenda forward without regard to the evidence or the public interest. As President Eisenhower said, "Any who act as if freedom's defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America."
Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. Justice Brandeis once wrote: "Men feared witches and burnt women."
The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk.
Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.
Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march - when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?
It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.
We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens' right not only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the part of the Executive Branch and the President's apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law.
I endorse the words of (former Republican U.S. Representative) Bob Barr, when he said, "The President has dared the American people to do something about it. For the sake of the Constitution, I hope they will."
A special counsel should immediately be appointed by the Attorney General to remedy the obvious conflict of interest that prevents him from investigating what many believe are serious violations of law by the President. We have had a fresh demonstration of how an independent investigation by a special counsel with integrity can rebuild confidence in our system of justice. Patrick Fitzgerald has, by all accounts, shown neither fear nor favor in pursuing allegations that the Executive Branch has violated other laws.
Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress should support the bipartisan call of the Liberty Coalition for the appointment of a special counsel to pursue the criminal issues raised by warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the President.
Second, new whistleblower protections should immediately be established for members of the Executive Branch who report evidence of wrongdoing - especially where it involves the abuse of Executive Branch authority in the sensitive areas of national security.
Third, both Houses of Congress should hold comprehensive - and not just superficial - hearings into these serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the President. And, they should follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Fourth, the extensive new powers requested by the Executive Branch in its proposal to extend and enlarge the Patriot Act should, under no circumstances be granted, unless and until there are adequate and enforceable safeguards to protect the Constitution and the rights of the American people against the kinds of abuses that have so recently been revealed.
Fifth, any telecommunications company that has provided the government with access to private information concerning the communications of Americans without a proper warrant should immediately cease and desist their complicity in this apparently illegal invasion of the privacy of American citizens.
Freedom of communication is an essential prerequisite for the restoration of the health of our democracy.
It is particularly important that the freedom of the Internet be protected against either the encroachment of government or the efforts at control by large media conglomerates. The future of our democracy depends on it.
I mentioned that along with cause for concern, there is reason for hope. As I stand here today, I am filled with optimism that America is on the eve of a golden age in which the vitality of our democracy will be re-established and will flourish more vibrantly than ever. Indeed I can feel it in this hall.
As Dr. King once said, "Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."
Five decades ago this years, in the fall of 1956, the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., newly prominent because of the role he played in the boycott by African-Americans of Montgomery, Alabama's segregated bus system, delivered one of the greatest speeches of his career at a Bible camp near a small midwestern community.
Speaking near the Wisconsin village of Green Lake, at a conference of the American Baptist Assembly and American Home Mission Agencies, King recognized a teaching moment. Reaching out to white Christians with a message about the need to join the burgeoning economic and social justice movement that would become the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, King asked his audience to ponder what the the Apostle Paul would say to them.
The contemporary prophet began, as he so often did, by addressing economic issues.
"I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism," said King, as he read an imaginary letter from the apostle. "Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity."
"The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation," the letter continued. "This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. You cannot solve the problem by turning to communism, for communism is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism that no Christian can accept. You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe "enough and to spare" for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth."
Then, still channeling the words of the apostle, King turned to the question of race.
"I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible," King's exposition of "Paul's Letter to American Christians" continued. "They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah's curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for. I must say to you as I have said to so many Christians before, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus." Moreover, I must reiterate the words that I uttered on Mars Hill: 'God that made the world and all things therein . . . hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.'
"So Americans I must urge you to get rid of every aspect of segregation," the letter continued. "The broad universalism standing at the center of the gospel makes both the theory and practice of segregation morally unjustifiable. Segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ. It substitutes an "I-it" relationship for the "I-thou" relationship. The segregator relegates the segregated to the status of a thing rather than elevate him to the status of a person. The underlying philosophy of Christianity is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of segregation, and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together."
Today, as we mark the 77th anniversary of King's birth in an era when some Christians still attempt to use their Bible as a justification for discrimination and hatred, it is more important than ever to remember the message of an apostle that was delivered fifty years ago.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), a book that historian Howard Zinn says "reminds us that our opposition to empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."