If the President Does It, It's Not Illegal?

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“When
the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
~ Richard Nixon

Since 9/11,
George W. Bush has been trampling all over the Constitution. Unfazed
by public opinion, the law or Congress, Bush seems to think he can
get away with anything.

His most recent
attempt (that we know of, at least) to expand his powers beyond
all legal justification came in July 2007. Falling conveniently
under the rubric of national security, Bush issued an executive
order which authorizes the government to freeze the financial assets
of anyone who directly or indirectly aids someone who has committed
or “poses a significant risk of committing” violent acts
“threatening the peace or stability of Iraq.”

Yet as Walter
Pincus pointed out in the Washington Post, the text of the
order, entitled “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten
Stabilization Efforts in Iraq,” if interpreted broadly, “could
cast a far bigger net to include not just those who commit violent
acts or pose the risk of doing so in Iraq but also third parties
– such as U.S. citizens in this country – who knowingly
or unknowingly aid or encourage such people.”

In fact, the
language is so broad that ordinary Americans who oppose the Iraq
war could find their names on the list of persons who are perceived
to be undermining “efforts to promote economic reconstruction
and political reform” in Iraq. With public support for the
war in Iraq plummeting, this could mean almost anyone.

This executive
order is just the latest example of Bush’s surreptitious attempts
through various presidential directives, executive orders and stealth
provisions to lay claim to a host of unprecedented powers. For example,
last fall, the Bush Administration engineered into a mammoth defense
budget bill the insertion of two stealth provisions that authorize
the president to use the military as a domestic police force in
response to a natural disaster, disease outbreak, terrorist attack
or any “other condition.” And another “presidential
directive” issued in May 2007 allows Bush to assume control
of the federal government following a “catastrophic event”
such as an earthquake, hurricane or another 9/11.

Undaunted by
plummeting approval ratings, George Bush just keeps moving forward.
And our paper tiger Congress isn’t helping matters much, either.
As Jonathan Alter noted in Newsweek, right before leaving for their
summer recess, Congress “sold out the Constitution to cover
their political rears while keeping the rest of us mostly in the
dark.” Giving in to pressure from the White House, Congress
passed the Protect America Act of 2007 (the title alone should be
a warning that illicit motives are at work), which authorizes open-ended
surveillance of Americans’ overseas phone calls and e-mails
without the need for a warrant or security justification. It is,
as Aziz Huq writes in The Nation, “power without responsibility.”

We are long
past the point of concerning ourselves about the potential for abuse.
This is out and out abuse – of a federal office, of governmental
powers, of the oath made to the American people to preserve, protect
and defend the Constitution. President Bush is clearly not listening
to the American people, and the law means next to nothing to him – unless
he can bend it to his own purposes.

Which leaves
us where, exactly? The groundwork has been laid, the documents signed
and the powers transferred. For all intents and purposes, the Bill
of Rights is as good as dead. All we await is the fall of the axe
to signal that what has been plotted on paper is now a reality:
the Bill of Rights will soon cease to afford us any protection from
an imperial president.

And still President
Bush continues to add to his list of extraordinary orders and directives,
granting himself near dictatorial powers. Congress, with little
spine, less integrity and too busy running for re-election, offers
little attempt at oversight, enabling the president to ride roughshod
over the Constitution. And the media – the perfect accomplice
in this stealthy, bloodless coup – content to inundate us with
the latest celebrity scandal, says virtually nothing about Bush’s
burgeoning powers.

All
the while, most Americans continue to operate in blissful near-ignorance,
unaware or uncaring that the republic is about to fall. Yet, in
the end, “we the people” – not the president or the
politicians – are the ones who will suffer the consequences.
They may justify violating our freedoms in the name of national
security and the war against terrorism, but we will always be the
ones to pay the price.

Let us not
forget that presidents don’t give up power. Furthermore, what
George Bush is currently doing is preparing a toolbox of power for
the next president, whomever that might be. And the Constitution
be damned.

August
16, 2007

Constitutional
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail
] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute
.

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